Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 140–156 | Cite as

Emotions while writing about emotional and non-emotional topics

  • Sidney D’MelloEmail author
  • Caitlin Mills
Original Paper


Research on the effects of expressive writing about emotional experiences and traumatic events has a long history in the affective and social sciences. However, very little is known about the incidence and impact of affective states when the writing activities are not explicitly emotional or are less emotionally charged. By integrating goal-appraisal and network theories of affect within cognitive process models of writing, we hypothesize that writing triggers a host of affective states, some of which are tied to the topic of the essays (topic affective states), while others are more closely related to the cognitive processes involved in writing (process affective states). We tested this hypothesis with two experiments involving fine-grained tracking of affect while participants wrote short essays on topics that varied in emotional intensity including topics used in standardized tests, to socially charged issues, and personal emotional experiences. The results indicated that (a) affect collectively accounted for a majority of the observations compared to neutral, (b) boredom, engagement/flow, anxiety, frustration, and happiness were most frequent affective states, (c) there was evidence for a proposed, but not mutually exclusive, distinction between process and topic affective states, (d) certain topic affective states were predictive of the quality of the essays, irrespective of the valence of these states, and (e) individual differences in scholastic aptitude, writing apprehension, and exposure to print correlated with affect frequency in expected directions. Implications of our findings for research focused on monitoring affect during everyday writing activities are discussed.


Affect Emotions Writing Topic emotions Process emotions 



Special thanks to Art Graesser for useful discussions and to Rebekah Combs, Rosaire Daigle, Nia Dowell, Ally Dobbins, Melissa Gross, Blair Lehman, and Amber Strain for help with data collection. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (ITR 0325428, HCC 0834847, and DRL 1235958). Any opinions, findings and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Notre DameNotre DameUSA

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