Writer’s Notebook: 5 myths to debunk

Writer’s notebooks can be powerful tools in the writing classroom but I’ve heard a few myths floating around about these and I think it’s time to clear some of them up.

Let’s take a look at 5 myths you might come across when talking to teachers about writer’s notebooks.

Myth #1: Having a writer’s notebook automatically improves student writing.

Writer's Notebooks 5 myths to debunk image

Not true.

Like a hammer, a writer’s notebook is a tool. And, just like a hammer, it needs to be picked up and used for it to be effective. Having a hammer in the shed will not help build the house… having a “writer’s notebook” in a locker will not help improve student writing.

Using the writer’s notebook as a tool to increase the amount of time, volume, student choice and engagement is what will improve student writing.

When it’s used regularly to help students notice the world around them and capture ideas for writing, trial different craft strategies and practice writing in a risk-free environment- that’s when it will improve student writing.

Myth #2: There’s one correct way to use a writer’s notebook.

Nope.

You only need to read through my interviews with Trace Balla, Lian Tanner and Claire Saxby to see that each of these published authors uses their writer’s notebook in a different way. (Sign up to my mailing list to be notified of other posts, resources and info on my writer’s notebooks series).

Sure, there are similarities (none of them mentioned pasting worksheets into their books, for example), but there’s not one clear set of rules about exactly how these tools must be used.

What is clear, is that the use needs to be authentic- it needs to help the writer with their process of writing.

This means some authors doodle more in the notebook and others use it as a dumping ground of ideas. Some use it heavily in the planning stages, others put it away once they’ve started typing their work.

Most authors write in their notebooks regularly (and often daily).

Writer's Notebook examples
A couple of my writer’s notebooks. One has a decorated cover, one doesn’t. There are NO rules!

Many authors mention jotting down overheard conversations or interesting words, others sit and jot their thoughts at the start of each day.

Often, when teachers feel like they’re using the writer’s notebook in the ‘wrong’ way, they lose confidence with them and don’t use them at all.

My recommendation for learning the best way to use a writer’s notebook is to start using one yourself! This will help you learn what is authentic and helpful to you as a writer and what isn’t.

Here are Aimee Buckner’s guidelines for what’s in and out of the writer’s notebook:

“It’s not a science, there is no one right way. Keeping a notebook is a process.”

(Buckner, 2005)
Writer's notebook guidelines

All authors agree: the notebook is a messy place.

(I know, I know- this makes us control freak teachers uncomfortable- “how can we fit ‘messy’ into a nice neat little box? I need rules, I need structure, I need a pretty printed outline from Pinterest!”)

No. You don’t.

Myth #3: Students can have complete freedom when using a writer’s notebook.

I’m calling BS on this one.

Yes, the writer’s notebook is a messy place.

And yes, it’s all about the needs of the writer and their creativity and expression.

BUT you can’t forget our good old friend the Gradual Release of Responsibility when using these tools!

Remember Fisher and Fry’s statement?

‘All four phases of the gradual release of responsibility framework are necessary if we want students to learn deeply, think critically and creatively, and be able to mobilize learning strategies.’

(Fisher and Frey, 2014)

We can’t send our kids straight into the independent learning phase and expect a classroom of Roald Dahls and J. K. Rowlings to emerge. They need focused instruction.

Our students still need explicit teaching on how to collect and build ideas and how to mine the world around them for topics and themes. They need strategies NOT prompts.

They need teaching on how to turn an idea into a piece of writing that is interesting and engaging for a reader.

They need mentoring on how they can use the ideas in their notebook to craft writing that applies the teaching from the genre minilesson.

They can’t do any of this if the notebook is only used for ‘Free Writing Friday, ’ (where the ‘free’ part often means the lesson is ‘free’ of explicit teaching).

Effective notebook writing needs explicit teaching. In fact, it’s purpose built to support teaching of the ‘ideas’ trait (as well as test out the other traits).

Students might not apply the minilesson teaching in the writing time immediately following the minilesson, but you (and they) will be able to call on those minilessons when you’re conferring with writers down the track. (‘Remember when we did that minilesson on adding detail to your ideas? This might be a good time to use that strategy…”

Myth #4: The Writer’s notebook is only useful for ‘collecting seeds.’

Ralph Fletcher often talks about the notebook as a place for collecting seed ideas that might later germinate into beautiful flowers. (It’s important to note that he’s also very realistic about how many seeds actually do turn into flowers- a rate that’s pretty reflective of my actual greenthumb capacity).

He also calls notebooks incubators:

“A writer’s notebook works just like an incubator: a protective place to keep your infant idea safe and warm, a place for it to grow while it is too young, too new, to survive on its own. In time, you may decide to go back to the idea, add to it, change it, or combine it with another idea. In time the idea may grow stronger, strong enough to have other people look at it, strong enough to go out on its own.”

(Fletcher, 1996)

So yes, writer’s notebooks are certainly great for ‘collecting seeds’ to write about later…

BUT their use does not stop there.

As you can see in the way Lian Tanner uses her notebook, writers often dip in and out of their notebooks throughout the entire writing process.

In the drafting and revising stages, notebooks are wonderful places to test out craft ideas after minilessons.

You might do a minilesson on ‘creating a lead’ for example (organisation trait) and, after students have  read through mentor texts to see how other writers start their stories, they could use the notebook to test out different lead strategies for one of their own pieces.

 

Myth #5 It’s either notebooks or genre instruction- you can’t do both.

Bullocks.

It’s not an either/or sum.

In fact, notebooks shine when used in conjunction with genre instruction.

Let’s take persuasive writing as an example:

Have you ever had this problem: After teaching all your best, carefully planned minilessons on the organisation of a persuasive writing piece you are dismayed at the voiceless, dull and boring writing that students hand back to you?

Enter the writer’s notebook!

Teach your organisation minilessons BUT rather than assigning a topic (don’t even get me started on cats vs dogs as a topic!) ask your students to reread all the writing in their notebook to look for possible topics they could write about:

Writer's notebook entry for persuasive writing
This list entry could be a great ‘seed’ to grow into a persuasive writing flower.
  • What are the common themes they’ve written about?
  • What topics do they know a lot about?
  • What do they care about?
  • What keeps popping up?

(Obviously, the more writing they’ve done in their notebook, the more effective this task will be.)

Narrow the list of potential ideas down until they find the one idea that stands out for them at this point in time.

Now, when students apply the learning from the minilesson, they’ll be writing on a topic they actually know and care about. This will impact the voice in their writing as well as their motivation, engagement and perseverance with the task.

“Offering students choices about their learning is one of the most powerful ways teachers can boost student learning…

Students engage in deeper, richer learning.

Students display more on-task behaviour.

Students’ social and emotional learning increases.

The learning environment becomes more collaborative.

Teaching is more fun.”

(Anderson, 2016)

Writer’s notebook can be powerful tools for improving student writing, but they must be used in a way that promotes time for writing, increases volume of writing and allows student choice in writing.

Want some great strategy lessons for the writer’s notebook? (Or got some great ideas you want to share?) Check out my free downloadable PowerPoint with nearly 40 strategies and ideas.

You’re welcome 😊

Now, go and get yourself a book to start writing in! (And, if you haven’t already signed up to my mailing list and received your copy of my recommended mentor text list, you should do that too!)


Want more PD on writing? I’m running a one day PD this coming school holidays (see below).

(Also, let me know if you’re interested in me running a one hour writer’s notebook PD over the holidays or early next term…

Teach writing with confidence

References:

  • Anderson, M. (2016). Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn: The Key to Student Motivation and Achievement. ASCD.
  • Buckner, A. (2005). Notebook Know-How: Strategies for Writers’ Notebooks. Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Fisher, D. and Frey, N. (2014). Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition. 2nd ed. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Fletcher, R. (1996). A writer’s notebook. HarperTrophy.
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2 thoughts on “Writer’s Notebook: 5 myths to debunk”

  1. Writer’s notebook are one of my favourite ways to get my students to see themselves as writers. We aren’t just mimicing something that other writer’s do in their writing. We ARE the writers and our notebooks help us find out who we are as writers.
    How often have I heard these things about writer’s notebooks,and frankly, it gets me cranky:
    * waste of writing time
    * doesn’t teach anything
    * we don’t have time
    * my junior students can’t do it
    * it’s not writing
    * we do notebooks on Monday
    * I dont have time to look through all the notebooks.

    There is definitely a need to spread the love of notebooks and debunk the myths. A Writer’s notebook PD will be great. #spreadthelove

    Reply
    • Yes please Narissa,

      I would be very interested in a PD on writer’s notebook. It’s our school’s focus at the moment so that PD would be perfect!

      Love your blog on how different authors use their writier’s notebook.

      With thanks Jo

      Reply

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