Are you ever unsure about what you want from your working life? If so, you may find writing about it will help. A new paper proposes that the act of writing can help develop career narratives and make sense of ourselves. Here's the big idea, and some approaches you can take to become a ball-point explorer.
Over the last few decades some career counsellors have begun to move from what psychometrics offer - fixed snapshots of current capabilities and interests - to begin exploring the value of narrative. Patterns over time, routes begun but abandoned, as well as underlying hopes and fears: all of these are material that can help in creating meaningful paths for the future. Now researchers Reinekke Lengelle and Frans Meijers suggest that with the right techniques to hand, this kind of progress can be achieved through solo writing techniques. After all, writing also involves dialogue - with the page, rather than another person - and is known to enhance meta-cognitive and self-reflective skills. Does it work, and how can we investigate what's really going on?
The current paper showcases methods for systematically evaluating writing content, a common one being to look at patterns of word use. Existing research suggests that shifting from one pronoun to another (e.g., They to I) reflects an ability to step in and out of a situation and gain control of its narrative. The mix of emotional words are also significant, with writing that contains more positive than negative words reflecting a healthier direction for a personal journey. However, an absence of negative emotions suggests an unwillingness to see the whole situation. Looking at such measures over time makes it possible to see changes in how individuals think about the world and their future – for our purposes, their career future.
The article describes a study using these techniques to explore texts produced at various stages of a writing course taken by students preparing for a work placement. The study used a very small sample that allows only a quasi-quantitative approach to the data, with no statistical analysis, and appropriately the article notes that the outcomes – that a writing course may help some people develop clearer career direction – should be considered highly tentative. My interest in this study is that it lays the groundwork for longitudinal research: I would want to see work exploring whether writing training leads to exploration of narratives, and whether that leads to better long-term career satisfaction.
It may be early days for the research on writing for career guidance, but that doesn't prevent you from exploring these techniques yourself, or even putting them to the test systematically. So here are some links which could help you get started, using the evidence base that currently exists. It should be emphasised that the techniques may well be more useful when delivered in a structured course such as the one described in the, especially for those fairly new to writing.
”Our fictional narratives offer important information about what is salient for us.” One approach is to write a piece that involves careers – perhaps imagining someone starting an exciting job - and then step back to reflect upon the themes that emerge. Alternatively, poetry and the construction of metaphor can also expose surprising truths as the limitations demands new ways of expression.
The authors reference Gillie Bolton as well as the collection The self on the page, and another online resource is here.
To see experiences from a range of viewpoints. Lengelle's students were asked to respond to a series of prompts such as “Write a sentence about yourself and then write it again saying the opposite. Write each so that they both feel true” or “The one fear I have around writing (e.g. poetry/story) or the creative process is . . . ” followed by “I sense that an uplifting response to that fear might be . . .” Another method is to write out a dialogue between two perspectives that relate to work, such as the concept of the“Labour market” having a conversation with the archetype of an“Employed” person: “You need me”; "I don’t pay you a thought unless I’m disattisfied".
The canon suggested includes Stories at work also by Bolton, as well as this article in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. Online resources include Monash University's page on the topic
Try writing about personal topics , doing justice to their emotional dimension, and exploring how events make you feel. This emotional element permeates and overlaps with the others, but a clear example is perhaps the use of Byron Katie's “The Work”, involves a technique where a stressful thought is investigated through responding to four questions - eg “How do you react when you believe the thought?” to deepen and tease out the depth of the possible feelings.
Texts that explore the value of expressive writing include James Pennebaker's corpus of work, most recently The Secret Life of Pronouns, and Karen Baikie and Kay Wilhelm's paper on emotional and physical health benefits. Online resources at the national writing project.