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Making Writer’s Notebooks Personal

A few of my notebooks. Image first shared at Ruth Ayres Writes.

In my last post, there was this comment:

Thanks for these ideas! But I really can’t wait to read about your ideas on writer’s notebooks on Monday! I need to breathe new life in to them in our classroom…I do not feel that I have found a way to make students WANT to write in them.

This is something I know I’ve felt before. We read about all of these great notebook ideas; we consider ways to help students generate ideas; we spend massive amounts of time fancying-up the notebook, and then, a few months in, it feels like no one cares about actually  writing in their notebooks. At this point we begin wondering if the notebook is more myth than reality, more like the left-handed-smoke-shifter my brother used to send unsuspecting cub scouts in search of during boy scout camp outs.

So how does the notebook become a tool for writers instead of a collection of forced, mediocre writing assignments? I think it is much like the tools of any craft. Unless we spend lots of time with them in our hands, trying and failing and trying again, we’ll never tap into the power of the tool.

  1. Keep a writer’s notebook for yourself. Like most things in life, we can tell others how it’s supposed to go, or we can roll up our sleeves and figure it out for ourselves. When we do it for ourselves, then we can begin to figure out the nuances. We know what makes us want to use our notebooks, and we can figure out how to use it throughout the process. I’ll admit, for awhile I went through the motions of using a notebook. That’s simply part of the process. Eventually things began to click and I found ways to make the tool work for me.
  2. Use the notebook daily. If we believe the notebook is a crucial tool to a writer’s success, then we are going to attempt to tap its power on a regular basis. Now this doesn’t mean we have to have a new “prompt” every day. Rather, look back at previous entries and snag powerful lines or nagging ideas. Open the notebook and jot a TO DO list in order to complete your current project. Write a new ending as a means of revising, or use it to work on combining sentences during editing.
  3. Remember there are many paths that lead to the same destination. Just because a list works for you, doesn’t mean that a sketch or web can’t work for someone else. The purpose of the notebook entry is to help the writer.I find it useful to learn how different writers keep notebooks. Sharing Our Notebooks, a blog hosted by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater is an exceptional resource for this.
  4. Consider the purpose of the entry. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the “rules” for notebook entries. Rather, I try to keep my eyes on the big picture. Notebooks need to open the door for the writer. They are a place to play, take risks, and learn.
  5. Empower students to make it personal. The minute notebooks become laden with rules is the same minute their power is diminished. This doesn’t mean there are no rules when it comes to notebooks, just to consider which rules are most necessary. I ask students to date each page and to keep their entries in order. They can write in pencil, pen, highlighter, marker in their notebooks. They can write on the backs of pages, but they don’t have to. They can put the date in the top corner or the center. I try to go lightly on the rules in order to empower students to take ownership of their notebooks.
  6. Give space to take risks. Ultimately, in order to grow as writers, we need to be comfortable taking risks. The notebook is the first playground for the writer. It must be a safe place to play. If it is a place of judgement, then we are less likely to want to write in the notebook. Consider ways to make the notebook a safe place to write.

How about you? How has your notebook become personal?

Ruth Ayres View All

Unhurried. Finding the magic in the middle of living. Capturing a life of ridiculous grace + raw stories.

7 thoughts on “Making Writer’s Notebooks Personal Leave a comment

  1. Every morning in my middle school Creative Writing classroom, I have a prompt (a word, sentence, video, song, picture, etc.) for the students on the projector. They can either write about something that prompt inspires in them, or really whatever else they want. I check to make sure the students write an entry every day.

    Your post and others around the web have inspired me to have writers notebooks this year that the students decorate, bring home, and write in at home too, simply dating each entry. I will have them staple shut any entry they don’t want me to read. I love the idea of that ownership and personal feel, but I think I still need to check them, so that’s a happy medium for me.

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  2. I struggled with writers notebooks last year with my 4th graders. The idea of a writers notebook was new to them. We are participated in our own Slice of Life Challenge ( and I shared my daily writing that I was posting on line) – everyone writing every day at the same time. The everyday writing made the difference. They were ready each day to write and disappointed when we did not. Finding the pattern – same time everyday and the words will find you!

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  3. After reading Don’t Forget to Share I made it a goal to not miss the share at the end of Writing Workshop last year. As I saw students struggle to generate ideas for their writing notebooks, I decided to make a notebook share during our morning meetings. It not only helped us celebrate our writing and the writers, it also inspired ideas. Students would compliment each other and begin to write in a similar style and about similar topics. It elevated our excitement to fill our notebooks and the caliber of writing in them!

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  4. I’ve kept a journal (more diary-like) for quite a long time, but the writers notebooks I do for school are where I keep my ideas or writing and for reading, responses, and my WIP that I am working with because of the kinds of things I want my students to learn. It does back & forth between class lessons, examples & personal lists or sketches. And different years bring different things. I do like students to include some visual work too because I think they can find it useful in the making sense of what they’re writing. Good questions, Ruth. Thank you.

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  5. I use writer’s notebooks, but we still call them journals. I keep one too. One of my students told me near the end of the year, “Mrs. Simon doesn’t have many pages left, so she must not have much more to teach us about poetry.”
    We spend the first few days of school decorating and personalizing our journals. This is where they store their own writing. I do not grade them. If a piece of writing is to be graded, they make a final draft. I feel it is important to keep them personal. I like what you said about the fewer rules the better.
    Thanks for this post.

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  6. Ralph Fletcher has some great inspiration for students in his book _A Writer’s Notebook_. My school bought a copy for all the students. I tested it with a summer school group and posted the results: http://wp.me/p1Dq2f-GA

    Also, consider using mentor texts to spur writing ideas. What if they re-wrote a story from the POV of the villian (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs)? Even the older students love picture books if they are used as mentor texts (and the short-ness of picture books make it easier for students to pick out the story mountain, patterns, parallelism, symbolism, etc.

    I’ll be posting on other ideas soon.

    I think the key to ongoing writing notebooks is to let students know that writer’s notebooks don’t all look the same. They don’t have to be diaries (although they can be diaries). And, they should be able to experiment with a number of types of entries before settling into their own personal style.

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