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What goes in a Writer’s Notebook? Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool

What goes in writer’s notebooks?

What goes in writer’s notebooks? Every now and then people will ask me this question, and it’s complicated. Sometimes more complicated than I even realize, and sometimes, I’m not even sure I have the right answer. I think we have to remember we are launching students into the world of writer’s notebooks. Our “rules” and “systems” are not set in stone, but rather practices that teach, inspire, and energize young writers to notice, collect, and celebrate before making decisions about bringing pieces to life outside of their notebooks.

In his book, A Writer’s Notebook (1996), Ralph Fletcher writes about a writer’s notebook:

“It gives you a place to write down what makes you angry or sad or amazed, to write down what you noticed and don’t want to forget, to record exactly what your grandmother whispered in your ear before she said goodbye for the last time.

A writer’s notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time, but wherever you are, at any time of day” (p. 3).

Maybe the only thing that has changed in twenty-two years is that we have more to react to in our world.

Lanny and Kathleen have done a beautiful job exploring and explaining the purposes of writer’s notebooks and the ways we can help students to organize them. These concepts are tough for new notebook keepers! And another tough concept for students and for many teachers is what goes in and what comes out, regardless of genre, regardless of unit.

There is a chart I created for third and fourth-grade writing units that has been foundational to my thinking. The chart gives a quick overview of some of the do’s and don’ts of what goes in notebooks:

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Although I prefer to start most conversations in a positive spirit, Lanny’s post addresses much of what falls under the “yes” column. Furthermore, this chart sparks many conversations, with both teachers and students, and mostly those conversations begin with the “no” side.

Why no drafting?

I get a lot of questions from both teachers and students about drafting in notebooks. Here’s the thing: when students draft in their notebook, they almost always fill the entire page, margin to margin. Then, it becomes tricky to get them to practice revision strategies because there simply isn’t room. In my experience, when student who have drafted in their notebooks come out of their notebooks, they do minimal revision. They mostly copy their writing–maybe fixing some spelling, maybe adding or changing a word or two– but they don’t hunker down into the revision process. As a writer, I know revision is really hard, but it’s  the part in my process that makes my writing better. Most writers agree.

In addition, when students draft in notebooks, the question of when and where their stories end loses clarity. The pages of a notebook have the potential to invite students to write and write, frequently without structure. In contrast to notebooks, we can control the space on paper by how we design the lines, and we can also unstaple booklets or packets, adding pages as needed.  Also, paper allows for and invites structure. Writer’s notebooks are for experimentation, for playing with, discovering, developing, and nurturing ideas, but once we are ready to write for an audience, to hone in on an idea and commit to it with a draft, then the draft belongs outside of the notebook. “Are you thinking that this could be for others to read?” I ask students. If the answer is yes, then I head them over to the paper station.

And what about drawing?

Just as drafting is complicated–at what point do we decide we are no longer playing around with a topic, no longer trying out strategies, but instead, ready to move into the serious business of drafting? Drawing is also complicated. I have many students who I encourage to sketch their ideas in their notebook. Sometimes the artwork may be a series of drawings that tell a story or help them hold onto an idea. Other times their pictures may help them understand a character they are developing. Maybe the best way to differentiate useful drawings from overly elaborate drawings is to determine if those drawings are helping, preparing for, or inspiring a writing process or if they are providing a convenient pathway of avoidance. If you can determine the answer to that differentiation, then you can decide whether to discourage or encourage your artist.

Put the erasers away and out of reach.

This one is closely related to perfectionism. Perfectionism can be the enemy in notebooks and in the lives of writers. Whenever I see students erasing in their notebooks, I teach them how to cross out and keep writing. Sometimes I put their eraser out of reach in a good-natured kind of way. For striving writers, erasers and erasing provide a perfect way to look busy and avoid the task of writing. Erasing can make pages tear, and then those pages come out of the notebook and disappear.

And then there’s the jumping around thing.

Many striving writers jump around…one particularly avoidant writer creates entries on random pages throughout his notebook, and it can take him several minutes to locate what he’s looking for. Sometimes, when I’ve worked with him, he’s spent all this this time looking for something, then he reads it, and then he decides it’s not what he was looking for after all. Whenever possible, prevent or discourage students from writing on random pages. While notebooks don’t have to be perfectly organized, a sense of structure sometimes helps them to use their notebooks productively and intentionally–don’t miss Kathleen’s post for great ideas about organization.


As in most areas within education, and maybe life as well, don’t ever, ever let perfect get in the way of good when it comes to writer’s notebooks. Stacey’s post reminds us that our notebooks are both workbenches and playgrounds. I’ve already mentioned how erasers can destroy pages and decimate ideas in notebooks, and they can also get in the way of the flow of ideas. My best notebooks have writing on diagonals, upside down, sectioned off, and in different colors. Moreover, some of the most effective notebook pages I’ve seen in students’ books have cross-outs, arrows, and inconsistent, sloppy writing. While I do encourage students to use punctuation–simply because entries should be readable and that’s the most basic purpose of conventions–I emphasize  the most important thing about notebooks is that they have to work for writers. That means that perfection is far from mandatory.

Applying these concepts across genres

Many of the ideas that swarm around writer’s notebooks seem to head in the direction of narrative writing–snippets of conversation, moments to remember, daily slices of life all correlate to stories. And yet, notebooks provide a playground and a workbench for information and opinion writing as well.

Information Writing

In Finding the Heart of Nonfiction (2013), Georgia Heard reminds us that “humanity and warmth are the essence of good nonfiction.” She goes on to ask the following questions of her nonfiction mentor texts:

  • Do the words sound like they were written by an author?
  • Does the text have a voice?
  • Do the words invite the reader in?
  • Do they make the reader feel passionate about or interested in a topic that she didn’t care about before?

When we think about Heard’s statement and her questions in conjunction with what goes in writer’s notebooks when we move beyond narrative writing, we find many options. There’s a huge challenge and many options of how to weave humanity, heart, and voice into facts and information. For example, one of the students in my writing group shared an information text he’d been writing about Australia, and we all agreed it was not much more interesting than an encyclopedia. We spent time playing with his work in our own notebooks, thinking about ways to use narrative techniques. The other students experimented with personification, parallelism, repetition, asking and answering questions, and even incorporating humor, colloquialisms, and jokes.

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A kangaroo jumps across the desert. A koala hangs around a tree. A snake slithers around the ground. All of these unique animals live in the fascinating continent of Australia. Many exotic animals swim in the colorful coral reefs around Australia and explore the most beautiful coral reef of all, the Great Barrier Reef.


Another one of the students played with the encyclopedia-like exposition and explanation about dingos, writing:

A dingo creeps through the fences of a farm and stares down the sheep and cattle. It was small compared to the large cow, weighing no more than 35 pounds.

All of these entries were inspired by Heard’s questions, and led to analysis of interesting nonfiction that elementary students could handle. As listed on my “yes” side of the chart, these entries are “try it out’s” which are welcome additions in writer’s notebooks.

Opinion Writing

Opinion writing also lends itself to notebook work. I use my own notebooks as examples of how to play within this genre whenever I work in upper elementary classrooms. I want students to understand they need to experiment with their ideas and push themselves to think differently, maybe even discover thoughts they hadn’t had until writing about it. We write for many different purposes, I like to tell students. Sometimes we write to discover ideas we didn’t even know we had. Free-writing is a great pathway into new ideas and I love nudging students to explore thoughts they’re having through writing. The chart below, inspired by the Boxes to Bullets unit of study from Heinemann Press, helps me get them started:

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Once I introduce this chart and they begin, I also emphasize the importance of including thinking stems such as:

  • Maybe…
  • This makes me think…
  • Another thought I’m having…
  • I’m wondering…
  • As I write this, I’m realizing…

It’s really powerful to even suggest to students that they try to use these thinking prompts three times in a row. When I’ve done this, I have ended up with some thinking surprises for myself, and it’s powerful when students have this experience. “I didn’t even know I thought that,” one student said.

Just as we can collect lists that seem narrative in nature, we can also construct lists in our notebooks that lend themselves to opinion writing. One year when I was writing a demonstration essay about how decisions are traumatic for me, I wrote lists in my notebook of all of my decision-making conundrums.

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From there, I showed students how I grappled with just the right claim that would anchor the rest of my essay. That work belonged and flourished in my notebook.

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Final Thoughts

In the end, I return to the slippery slope of perfectionism. How you teach students to use their notebooks should not be defined by perfect practice; it should be guided by what works to inspire students to become confident, curious explorers of their thoughts and voice. It’s okay if they do some drafting in their notebook. If they create some elaborate drawings, so be it. Regardless of genre, we want to inspire students to develop their voices as writers, and then use those voices to entertain, inform, and change the world.


  • For StaceyThis 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.
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One thought on “What goes in a Writer’s Notebook? Notebooks as a Writer’s Tool

  1. So much to reflect on… The thinking prompts are great – the anchor chart is helpful… and the reminder on Georgia Heard’s book (I LOVE that book) – your post is a repository for the wide breadth in utilizing writers notebooks.

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