Can writing be therapeutic?

If you don't think of yourself as a writer, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard may seem like a drag. But learning to write for pleasure could be more than just a relaxing pastime.

Stories, scripts, poetry, even essays - keeping your imagination fired up in your free time has been proven to have benefits in other parts of life, especially in the classroom.

Young people who enjoy writing have greater confidence in their ability to produce quality work and have an outlet for their feelings, research from the National Literacy Trust shows.

But fewer than 14% (one in seven) of people aged between 14 and 16 write outside of the school and homework environment every day. Just 36% admit to enjoying writing by choice.

Studies show just one in seven of 14 to 16 years olds write in their spare time for pleasure.

National Writing Day, on 26 June, aims to encourage more young people to embrace the positive powers of getting their thoughts out onto a page or screen, especially at a time in life when emotions and stress levels can run high.

What counts as 'writing'?

Fay Lant from the National Literacy Trust’s Young Writers Programme said the low statistics don’t take into account social media content creation.

She told BBC Bitesize: “That low stat, that one in seven young people write daily in their spare time - I find that really hard to believe, as I’m sure a large number are posting on social media or texting their friends.

“That’s not necessarily creative writing, but it’s interesting to see what young people perceive as writing.

“There’s a lot more of what we call multi-modal texts these days in social media, so you may be curating an Instagram post, adding an image and thinking what text to put alongside it. That is all part of the skillset of communicating an idea or subject.”

Writing can be a positive way of dealing with life events.

So while it’s possible thousands of young people are writing creatively in their spare time without even realising it, Fay and her colleagues also look at other ways teenagers express themselves.

Every year the Trust asks 50,000 young people from all UK backgrounds about their attitudes to writing.

One constant since the first survey is how children on free school meals are more likely to write in their spare time. They are also more likely to write poetry, as the creativity and self expression involved has strong links to the music they listen to. It’s also the form the Trust has found to most benefit its writers’ wellbeing.

Fay explained: “The therapy side of writing is so important because we’ve all seen the increasing prevalence of mental health problems, particularly among young people. Things like social anxiety and depression, those rates are rising all the time.”

Make some noise - even if no-one's listening

Whatever form the therapy of writing takes, respondents to Fay and her colleagues said finding just five or 10 minutes each day to write for themselves has proven beneficial. The control each writer has over the subject, medium and form also plays a part in making it a positive experience.

Fay said: “A lot of therapy talks about externalising your feelings and if you can explore those feelings through a character, you can try finding out a way where things could have ended differently, or try out those difficult conversations you haven’t had through your writing. That’s a really, really valuable way of exploring different feelings and emotions.”

Blogging is one way of reaching out to an audience.

While the positive mental aspects of creative writing have been proven, there is an argument that young people should be left to discover its joys for themselves, rather than be led by the nose.

Neil Cross, creator of the BBC crime drama Luther, starring Idris Elba, said in a blog post for BBC Writersroom: “I’m a bit sceptical about the idea that young people should be introduced to writing because in some abstract way it’s “good” for them - even though I think it is.

“I worry that, should educators even appear to be cramming a virtuous message down young peoples’ throats, those young people will come to resent the imposition.”

But Fay disagrees: “If there’s a really positive learning environment, if you’re supported to have really positive experiences with writing, that can lead you to it as equally as discovering it yourself, but the most important thing is trying to develop those positive attitudes.”

One writer who knows all about the fulfilling aspects of writing is Michael Morpurgo (pictured), former Children's Laureate and author of War Horse among many other celebrated titles. To mark National Writing Day, we asked him how being creative with words helps him in everyday life.

Michael said: "It is fulfilling in the deepest sense, because you live it in the world of the others you have created and share their concerns and predicaments, in other words you spend the time outside yourself, and that’s to me very calming."

Writing can be a challenge regardless of your experience and on completion of a piece he's proud of, Michael said he was "relieved that it's done, and done to the best of my abilities," but also that the challenge brings "a sense of real exhilaration if I feel I’ve pulled it off, or of deep despair when I realised I haven’t."

Don't hide your love away

Surprisingly, when professional writers talk about their teenage years, one common aspect of the writing-for-fun process shows through.

“The thing I’ve heard most is that writing was a secret,” Fay said.

“Furtively scribbling away in their bedrooms, either because they wanted to express some form of teenage angst, or they were trying to deal with a difficult experience. A lot of the writers I’ve spoken to have said they didn’t realise it was OK to write. They almost thought it was a dirty secret, but it’s obviously one that we would encourage!”

National Writing Day takes place on 26 June. For more information, visit the website.

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