What is reflective writing?

Reflective Writing

Back in 1910, the American philosopher, John Dewey, wrote in his book “How we think” that reflective thinking has consequences. That’s an important point. Reflecting on any aspect of your life makes no difference to you unless it has an impact upon what you are going to think or do in the future.

That’s the essence of reflective writing. It isn’t just writing down what you have done. Rather, it is about interpreting what you have done and considering its consequences for your future behaviour or thinking.

As a university lecturer who marks a great deal of reflective writing, this is at the heart of why I have to give poor marks to students. Instead of considering the consequences, their reflections are mere “journals”. They summarise what happened but do not consider the implications. That means what they produce is not reflective writing.

If you want to produce good reflective writing then you need to consider the implications of your experiences and actions. Reflective writing is about the future more than it is about the past.

However, having said this, a commonly agreed definition of what is meant by “reflective writing” is hard to find. Indeed, you can find many different ideas as to what reflection is all about. There are several different models of reflection too.

At their heart, though, are three key things:

  1. Remembering what you have done
  2. Analysing what you have done
  3. Thinking about what all that means.

If you go back to the 1910 ideas from John Dewey, he pointed out that we should consider reflective writing to be about a series of steps. Thinking about something, without it leading to another step, is not a reflection, according to Dewey.

Reflective writing, therefore, is about considering the steps towards something different in terms of your behaviour or thinking. 

Another important aspect of reflective writing is that it should be intensely personal. Reflection is about you. What do you see when you look in the mirror? That reflection is you. It isn’t somebody else, nor is it some abstract individual. You see yourself. In much reflective writing, students appear to want to write “academically” in the third person. But that’s not a reflection. Reflective writing is personal. If your reflective writing doesn’t include pronouns like “I” or “my” or “mine” and so on, then it isn’t really a reflection. 

So, what is reflective writing? It is something that is written in the first person that looks back at what you have done or thought and projects that forward to changes you could or will make in your behaviour or thinking. Good reflective writing focuses on the future, not the past.