notebooks · Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool Blog Series · teacher of writing · writer's notebook · writing workshop

Ways to Organize Writer’s Notebooks: Notebook as a Writer’s Tool

Is there one right way to keep a writer’s notebook?

There is no one “correct” way to organize writer’s notebooks. So much depends upon the purpose the notebooks serve in your classroom and how students will utilize them during writing time. My goal with this post is to share different possibilities for organizing writer’s notebooks and present you with various options. To section or not to section will depend on how you see writer’s notebooks and the role they play in your workshop.

No sections

In the past, my third graders’ writer’s notebooks were not organized into sections. I never used to section my own writer’s notebook either. I used to see it as a wide open space for any thoughts, ideas, drafts, lists, sketches, notes, etc. I have a collection of notebooks from different years of teaching that are just like this, and it is still a pleasure to reread them, going from a list, to a response to a reading, to a poem. I absolutely understand why a teacher might choose to invite students to keep notebooks in this way.


While I love the freedom that comes with a section-less notebook, I began to feel my writer’s notebooks needed to be more of a resource for student writers as well as a place to hold their unique ideas and their writing. Looking for new ideas, I discovered Angela Stockman’s Pace Yourself, an “online professional development playground” for teachers to explore different ideas around the teaching of writing. I took part in the course entitled, “Make Writing: Notebooks.” In this course, Angela describes how she sections the writer’s notebook so that it plays a meaningful role in every part of the writer’s workshop. She recommends creating 4 sections: Ideas (lists, maps, and other ways to generate ideas), Notes (notes from minilessons and conferences), Tinkering (a place to play with language and revision), and Reflection (a place to reflect on how the writing is going).

I modified those ideas for my students this year. My third graders have three sections: Ideas, Lessons, and Writing.

  • The first section is where students have heart maps, lists, and charts to inspire their writing.

  • The second section is where they glue in anchor charts and notes from the lessons I teach them.

  • The final section is where they draft and play with language, trying out different leads or lifting a line.  

The way I see the writer’s notebook is both treasure chest and workbench. It’s a place to store important ideas, memories, memorable language and moments. It’s also a place to learn how to write better and to have resources and references close at hand.

Alternative ways to section

I asked my TWT colleagues about how they’ve chosen to organize writer’s notebooks. As always, they are full of great ideas! Here are some alternative ways you might section your notebooks:

  • 2 sections: The front of the notebook is a place for students to list, draft, and write anything they choose. Students can flip over the notebook and use the other side as an exploratory notebook where they keep notes and ideas that could be used for informational or persuasive writing.
  • 2 sections: Put a post-it tab in the middle of the notebook. The first half of the notebook is for writing exercises, lessons, and plans. The second half is for “sacred writing” and is whatever the students wish to write about.
  • ¼ of the notebook: The last ¼ of the notebook can be used for student goals and notes from conferring. The first part of the notebook would be for whatever the student wishes to write.
  • Fold over pages: Students can fold a page down at the end of a unit of study to separate the writing from different units.

Giving students choices 

On Sunday, Betsy’s post “Whose Notebook is it Anyway?” really made me stop and think about ownership of notebooks. Kelsey had already planted the seed in my mind that students could choose to create sections (or not) in their notebooks. Betsy’s post made me think more about that idea. I always have student personalize and decorate their notebooks before we even start writing in them, but Betsy’s post made me rethink this. What if I started the year sharing my own notebooks and talked with students about the different possibilities for sections? I could require them to keep one place in their notebooks where they will save the information I share with them (a lesson section), but otherwise they could choose how they want their notebook to go. Seeing a list of possible ideas for sections and how other writers keep their notebook could inspire student writers to have more say in how their notebook works. As for the decorating of the notebook, I could also allow this to be a choice for students instead of making it an activity we all do at the same time. Maybe some students want to gradually add items to their notebook cover. Maybe other students prefer a blank outside. I could provide more choices to allow for more engagement and ownership of the notebook.

My Writer’s Notebook

I believe that teachers who teach writing should write themselves. Recently, I’ve been having a difficult time carving out time to write. I’m not making the time to write my observations, wonderings, ideas, or to play with language. So many thoughts about my children and my students come to me and then fly right by as I don’t stop to write them down. I sometimes feel stuck and blocked when it’s time to write a personal or professional blog post. Just like I tell my students, the way to get better at writing is by writing! To keep growing as a writer, I need to write more often.

I created sections for my new writer’s notebook. The sections I created are:

  • Professional questions, ideas, noticings: This will be for any thoughts that come to mind about teaching in general as well as specific observations, questions, and ideas related to my students.
  • Alex and Megan: This section is for the writing I will do about my two children.
  • Me: This section is for ideas that aren’t about teaching or my children. Being a teacher and mom are dominant themes in my life, but I am learning that there is a “me” beyond teacher and mom and this is her section!
  • Words and phrases I love: The final section is a place to capture beautiful language or interesting words and phrases.

I’m hoping that my new notebook will give me a place to both play with words and make writing a more consistent practice.

How do you see writer’s notebooks?

What is your philosophy when it comes to writer’s notebooks? Are they a place to dream and explore? A place to collect tools and strategies for improved writing? Both? Neither? What role does a writer’s notebook play in your own life? Your student’s lives? Please share your thoughts and ideas about organizing writer’s notebooks in the comments.

Links to explore:

Notebooks: Starting with What Matters Most

Breathing Life Back Into Notebooks: Discovering the Writer’s Life

Making Writer’s Notebooks Personal

Sharing Our Notebooks


  • This giveaway is for a free 20-minute classroom Skype session with author Amy Ludwig VanDerwater whose popular blog Sharing Our Notebooks is an excellent resource for notebookers of all ages and interests.
  • For a chance to win this Skype session with Amy, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 11th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can link you up with Amy if you win.
  • If you are the winner of the Skype session, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – AMY LV. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

3 thoughts on “Ways to Organize Writer’s Notebooks: Notebook as a Writer’s Tool

  1. This post was jam-packed with so many ideas. The teachers in my school have book-marked this whole blog series. When I was a classroom teacher, my students kept a binder for resources and a notebook for their writing. Although I liked how Nancie Atwell’s students managed their noteooks, I didn’t have luck with that. Thanks for sharing your ideas and thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Organizing notebooks is a question I have yearly!! Thanks for some new ideas! I’ve resisted having sections but know that the notebooks I’ve already filled need to have some sort of organization or than the post-its that litter each one!


  3. I feel like I am constantly working and reworking how I use notebooks. Your post made me feel better about this because this is what we do as teachers and how we respond to our students. I don’t have clear sections, but I do have my students save charts about writing from the back of the notebook for easier access. We also have a tab for a grammar page. I find this useful when a student needs a quick lesson, they can store it on this page for future reference.
    Thanks for this series. I am thinking more about our notebooks and what is working and what may need to change next year.


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