Author Henry Miller once said that writing is its own reward. But those who become nervous before a big event -- such as an exam or a job interview -- can take heart. A new study has found that putting pen to paper beforehand may offer another reward: it may improve your performance.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found that U.S. high school and college students who wrote about their fears about an upcoming test right before it was to begin got better grades than their peers who wrote about other topics or did not write at all.

In one part of the study, college students who wrote about their feelings about their upcoming math test for 10 minutes before it started solved 5 per cent more problems.

That was in comparison to their results from a pre-test, before which they were merely told to do their best. Before the second test, researchers ratcheted up the pressure by telling the students they would receive a financial windfall for doing well, that other students were depending on their success to receive that windfall, and that they would be videotaped and then reviewed by a math teacher.

In contrast, students who sat quietly for 10 minutes prior to the second test recorded an astonishing 12 per cent drop in problem-solving accuracy compared to how they fared in the pre-test.

In a second test of high school students who took fall, winter and spring biology midterms, and then a final exam, students who were found to be the most anxious about their exams and wrote about their worries prior to taking their final exam received an average grade of B+. In comparison, highly anxious students who wrote about other topics received an average grade of B-.

Previous research by lead study author Sian Beilock has shown that worries take up so-called "working memory," a short-term memory system that controls the limited amount of information that is relevant to a task immediately at hand. If our working memory is impeded in any way, performance can suffer.

The researchers also point out that studies have shown that people who suffer from depression who write about a traumatic or emotional experience are less likely to dwell on that event.

Therefore, the researchers set out to prove that writing can alleviate the burden that worries place on working memory because it allows the writer to re-evaluate that stress and realize he or she needn't worry at all.

The researchers say their findings indeed demonstrate that a short writing intervention before a test can help stave off the poor results associated with trying to perform in a high-pressure situation.

"The benefits of expressive writing are especially apparent for students who are habitually anxious about taking tests. Expressive writing eliminates the relation commonly seen between test anxiety and poor test performance," the authors write.

"Moreover, it is not writing that benefits performance, but expressing worries about an upcoming high-pressure situation that accounts for enhanced exam scores under pressure."

The findings were published Friday in the journal Science.

Focusing on fears

The researchers acknowledge that writing about one's anxieties would seem counterintuitive by drawing attention to them, thereby increasing the chances of a poor performance in, for example, a test or exam scenario.

But in the group of college students writing the math test, a second experiment proved that it was writing about their test-related anxieties that most improved performance.

After a pre-test in which they were once again merely told to do their best, students who were asked to write about topics unrelated to the math test had a 7 per cent drop in accuracy in the second test. In contrast, the group that wrote about their test-related anxieties showed a 4 per cent bump in accuracy. This despite the fact that the group that wrote expressively about their worries used more anxiety-related words and used more sentences that expressed negative thoughts and fears.

"For those students who are most anxious about success," the authors write, "one short writing intervention that brings testing pressures to the forefront enhances the likelihood of excelling, rather than failing, under pressure."

But the findings don't just apply to students preparing for tests or exams, according to Beilock.

"In fact, we think this type of writing will help people perform their best in a variety of pressure-filled situations -- whether it is a big presentation to a client, a speech to an audience or even a job interview."