Reflective writing is used in subjects as varied as education, nursing, sociology and the creative arts as a method to reflect on the learning experience. Students often find reflective writing difficult. How do you write about your own practice without sounding too formal or too confessional? You will be writing in the first person, which may feel awkward. Here I offer some tips for developing an authentic voice in reflective writing. The extracts I use are from the 20,000-word thesis for my practice-based PhD: a poetry film project.
Keep a journal
Reflective writing describes your own experiences as well as your personal and professional development. My first tip is to keep a journal. A reflective account may take many months to complete – or years if it is part of a PhD – and it is difficult to remember everything you felt. As soon as you have completed an experience, such as a placement or a phase of creative work, get your immediate thoughts down in writing. Your journal writing forms the raw material which you will use later.
Use your journal
When you are creating your final reflective account, look back at this journal and ask yourself these questions:
- What happened?
- What did you feel?
- What were the barriers to progress?
- What did you learn from this experience?
Use your answers to create the structure for your reflective account. You may want to use some of the exact phrases you wrote in your journal but you will probably need to rewrite your notes in correct academic style.
Write in academic style
When describing the initial spark for my project, I wrote in my journal, ‘Wow, this festival has really inspired me! I want to make poetry films!’ For my PhD critical paper, I rewrote my notes: ‘Whilst at the Dunbar festival I developed the idea of creating a “poetic sequence” of poetry films using spoken word poetry.’
Use the active voice
Use the active rather than the passive voice. Remember that in reflective writing, you and your experiences are the subject matter. Your tone will be formal but you are describing your unique journey of discovery. I wrote, ‘I have constructed my own historical timeline of influences starting with the Dadaists.’ This sentence uses the active voice. I could have written, ‘A historical timeline of influence starting with the Dadaists was constructed,’ which uses the passive voice and is not personal.
Don’t forget theory; you will need to show your understanding and knowledge. Your reflective account analyses how the theories in your subject apply to your practice. For my project, I had to investigate the early film pioneers and theories of moving image, and reference sources. I wrote: ‘Any film may contain both poetic and prosaic elements but the prevalence of poetic sequences will create a “poetic film” (Shklovsky, 1922, p. 46).’
I needed to show how this understanding of theory related to my own work. As well as a discussion of how I had used prosaic elements and poetic sequences, I examined my intention to create poetry films which were ‘thought provoking, unexpected and visually stunning’, showing that I understood the theory and my practice had been informed by it.
A reflective account is not just about what went well; it should explore the challenges and barriers. My own project was collaborative, and I had to learn how to work creatively with others. This wasn’t easy, and I explained why: ‘Like many writers I would describe myself as a control freak, so I was again battling with my “inner resistance”; my desire to take over and be “director”.’ Your account should explore your learning process to overcome challenges.
In a reflective account, you can be honest about what went wrong, or what didn’t work. There is no shame in acknowledging the difficulties you have had. What is more important is how you analyse these barriers and learn from them. In my own project, not all the collaborations were successful: ‘I realised that some film-makers did not want to engage fully with the aims of the project, or just wanted to make a film to add to their own body of work.’ I learned how to focus on what worked well rather than dwelling on failure. By creating my project, I discovered a great deal about the nature of a successful collaboration: ‘What I have gained from this whole experience is the value of trust.’
Create a conclusion
The final section should be a summary of what you have learned and how you will take this understanding further. One of my conclusions was, ‘I have discovered that a poem written with the intention to be used in a poetry film has to create more space for the visuals and the sound track to interact with the words.’ In your conclusion, you may have a similar moment of awareness or realise you need to change your approach or try a different method. In a reflective account, you should celebrate your achievements but also celebrate the challenges, and most importantly, how you overcame them.
It’s not difficult or time-consuming to build reflection into your writing practice, but it is enormously beneficial.
Developing a critical mindset involves drawing on qualities including confidence, motivation, curiosity and effort.
Finessing an argument and spotting typos need different mindsets. Whether you’re writing an essay or a PhD, you need to be the editor as well as the author.