Getting Started with Writer’s Notebook

What is a Writer’s Notebook?

Sometimes called the ‘messy attic of the mind’, the writer’s notebook is a magical place. It’s a place writers can collect, store, grow and nurture their ideas for writing. It is often filled with a collection of seeds (artefacts that provoke writing) like photos, sketches, holiday mementos, lists, news clippings, postcards, assorted ephemera. It is personal and varies in style from writer to writer.

It is an invaluable tool in helping our young writers to understand that their own ideas are the epicentre of the writing they will do during their time with you. It’s a place where writers practice being writers…

What does a Writer’s Notebook look like?

They can be lined, blank, big, tiny, bound, fancy, ugly: The writer’s notebook should be personal to each writer. It is full of seeds and ideas that are selected by the writer. Some teachers provide a certain type of notebook to each student. I prefer to allow my students to choose… perhaps they want a book with blank pages, a spiral-bound art book, a lined book, a little A5 exercise book, or even a special book they have at home. What is important is that they feel connected to it. Australian authors Andy Griffiths and Alice Pung advise writers to use a book that isn’t fancy (like an old exercise book) so that the writer doesn’t feel like what they put in it needs to be particularly fancy. This can encourage risk taking.

They look personal to the writer: I believe it is important for writers to personalise their notebook to cement the idea that this book really is for them. Lots of teachers provide time for students to create a front cover or first page that demonstrates themselves as an individual.

There are no templates: It’s really important that the things that go into the writer’s notebook are personal to the student. Often we teachers can tend to overprescribe a task and by doing so remove the opportunity for students to be imaginative, curious and risk-taking. For this reason I would advise holding back from photocopying templates for students to write on and stick in. The more open a task is, the easier it is for students to make it their own and create their own version of it, so they probably won’t need your template. Your demonstration of the technique… yes, your photocopied sheet… no.

They include space for collecting: I often get students to add an envelope or pocket to an inside cover. This allows them to collect writing seeds and come back to them at a later date.

What lessons could I do to get started?

Start with why

Make it clear what the writer’s notebook is for and why it is worthwhile for students to use it. I often show this video clip of author Mary Amato speaking earnestly about her love for writer’s notebook. The students are enchanted with the shoebox filled to the brim with her collection of her old notebooks.

Use real authors for inspiration

See below for a slidedeck I have created showing examples of the ways some real authors and creators use their own writer’s notebook.

Introduce different types of seeds

I talk with students about how a seed is another word for an idea that we can grow into something even more special, valuable and exciting. There is an endless list of possible seed types, but I have some tried and true seeds that I introduce, one day at a time, while we build a list together of seed possibilities. I tell them there is no rule for choosing a seed, except that it ‘grabs you!’. It is personally interesting, intriguing, idea-stoking. Some of these are:

  • Mysterious scraps – this is a fun one to begin with. We go for a walk around the grounds and search for a scrap of litter that has half a message, a word, a strange texture or shape, some scribbled writing on it.
  • Nature – outside again, we search for something in nature we can respectfully take and add to the notebook. Feathers, leaves, leaf rubbings, flowers and herbs from the kitchen garden are popular.
  • Newspaper/magazine clippings – browse for headlines, pictures, ads, or cut out a few of these and mix them up into a new sentence or ad.
  • Sketches – we try both observational drawings and imaginative drawings. Do not undervalue this one! And do not leave the illustrating as a last step in the writing process.
  • Maps – create a map of a make-believe, realistic or real world. Label areas and items and develop details on the map. My Map Book is a great starting point for a different way to approach this.
  • Photos – students to bring in photos from home.
  • Lists – I get the students to help us create a list of lists we could make. Some favourites are: To Do, My Favourite Things, Places I Want to Visit, Types of Haircut/Tree/Dance Moves/whatever.
  • Word collector – early on we create a place to collect and store new and interesting words.

Provide students with tools to unpack the seeds they add

Some of the tools I use are:

  • Word associations: write a word and continue writing associated words and ideas
  • 3 box method: Box 1: word associations/clouds/bubbles. Box 2: Freewrite using a word from the cloud. Box 3: Write some possibilities of text types and a title based on the ideas so far.
  • See think wonder routine
  • Use a question matrix like this one to unpack the seed

How do I make sure the Notebooks continue throughout the year?

  • Make it genuine. If your class is starting a writing piece, allow time to work in it before or during planning or drafting. If your class does ongoing free choice writing, it should be a natural part of the writing process.  
  • Students can take the notebook home. It belongs to the student, not school.
  • They have it with them during writing. I try to have students build the habit to always have their writer’s notebook with them when working on writing. It allows for a safe place to try, abandon, play with or note ideas as they work.  
  • Use it to develop/practice strategies, e.g. when you introduce onomatopoeia, include a page of onomatopoeic words, when writing narratives, develop character profiles, and so on.
  • Include frequent opportunities and time to just develop and nurture seeds.
  • Have students bring their notebook to writing minilessons and clinics so ideas go into them frequently.

Some further resources:

I’ll leave you with some further resources and tips from authors and a poem about the writer’s notebook written by notebook advocate Ralph Fletcher. I suggest sharing the poem with your students to adapt and make their own.

It’s a Place
Ralph Fletcher

Why am I keeping this notebook?
Because it’s a place where I
can keep track of my life.
It’s a place where I can observe closely
And where I can store
little pieces of strength.
It’s a place where I can keep
the elements of Life
(lightning, fire, ice, time and space)
and Writing
(poetry, words, eyes).
It’s a place where tales weave.
All in all
it’s a place for ME.
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3 thoughts on “Getting Started with Writer’s Notebook

  1. Thanks so much for your valuable insights. I particularly liked the video clip of author Mary Amato and reference to My Map Book. Is there anyway of signing to a mail list so I can be alerted when new posts from your blog come out?

    1. Hi Kim,
      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I think that clip of Mary Amato is one of the best tools I have for introducing writer’s notebook… I love it!
      I believe you are already subscribed to my blog! Thanks for you support and interest.
      Emily

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