What do real writer's notebooks look like?

Writers And Their Notebooks: Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder

Mar 12, 2023

After being asked countless times how students should use their writer’s notebooks in the classroom, I thought the best way to answer that question would be to ask published writers how they use their notebooks in the real world. 

Since beginning my writer’s notebook interview series, I’ve interviewed a range of Australian Children’s authors to gain insights into their notebook practices. 

Today, I’m thrilled to share my latest interview with you. 

Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder has written and illustrated a number of fabulous books for children including non-fiction novels and both fiction and non-fiction picture story books.   


Stephanie Owen Reeder and some of her books; Will the Wonderkid, Swifty and Lennie the Legend

I particularly love her non-fiction narratives Will the Wonderkid and Lennie the Legend. I know many teachers use these books as engaging class read alouds as they tell fascinating true stories of clever Australian kids. 

In our interview, Stephanie shares some fabulous insights into how she uses her writer’s notebook and finishes off with some great advice for young writers. 


How do you use your notebooks? 

I have different notebooks for different parts of the writing process. I always carry a small one in my handbag, as you never know when the idea for a book will jump into your brain.  

When I can’t find my notebooks, I have been known to write my ideas down on paper napkins, shopping dockets and sticky notepads! My latest picture book, Ghostie (illustrated by Mel Armstrong and published by Windy Hollow Books), started life on a napkin! 

Ghostie and Stephanie's ideas for this book written on a napkin!


Another notebook sits in the draw of my bedside table in case – as happened just the other night – I wake up at 3 am with the text for a picture book unspooling in my brain. The only way to get some sleep is to write it down! 

I also write the first drafts of all my books, from picture books to novels, in notebooks or exercise books. I love the way writing by hand allows the words to go straight from my brain onto the page without me being tempted to edit them and disturb the flow. 


What types of things do you write/draw/collect in your notebook? 

I end up with lists of things to do/think about/create and expand on, as well as scribbled images and doodles, including: 

  • Ideas for new books 
  • Book titles that one day might have a story to go with them 
  • Sentences or plot twists for books I’m currently working on  
  • Weird and wonderful facts about animals that I can include in my nonfiction books 
  • Sketches of characters 
  • Random thoughts that often mean nothing to me when I read them back again! 


Where do you get the ideas for your notebooks? 

They can come from anywhere, including: 

  • Conversations with my grandchildren 
  • Conversations with my children about their children or pets 
  • Random things I hear on the radio or television, or read in a newspaper or online 
  • Useful facts/ideas/characters I discover while researching other books  
  • Chats with people at my local café while having coffee. 

Beware and be prepared! Once you start writing, you’ll find ideas for books lurking everywhere! 


How do you take an idea from your notebook and turn it into a completed piece of writing? 

This can happen in a number of ways, but for historically based novels based on true stories, like Lennie the Legend (NLA Publishing), getting to a finished manuscript takes the following steps: 

  1. Once the kernel of the story in my notebook starts niggling at my brain, it’s time to start the research process 
  2. Months of research are required to gather together as much information as I can from both primary and secondary sources about the historical period in which the book is set, the real-life characters it is about and what actually happened 
  3. If I can, I visit the place where the book is set, and in some cases I’ve been lucky enough to meet people who knew the main character or their family and interviews with them end up in my notebooks 
  4. Once I have all the material I’ve collected organised in my computer by characters, setting, plot and background information, it’s time to let the story bubble to the surface and write itself 
  5. I know a story is ready to be written once the characters start having conversations in my head – a very weird sensation! 
  6. It’s then time to go to my trusty exercise books and start writing in earnest, and I usually don’t stop until the whole book is written by hand 
  7. I then type it into the computer and start the long, laborious task of editing it until I feel that it is ready for others to look at – whether that be a beta reader, a manuscript assessor or one of my publishers. 


An example first draft for one of Stephanie's books


What does your notebook look like? 

I have an eclectic assortment of notebooks but my favourites are Decomposition Books, with their recycled paper and vibrant covers. My notebooks are full of scribbled jottings, sketches, notes-to-self, Scrabble scores from championship games with my daughter, lists of reference books, shopping lists, first drafts of blogs, book blurbs and first drafts of picture book texts. I usually put a cross through an idea once I’ve developed it so I know where I’m up to! 

 Stephanie's decomposition notebooks


How often do you use your notebook? 

I scribble in it most days, as I like writing notes to myself. Sometimes I ignore what I’ve written completely, but other times those notes are the starting point of a new writing adventure. 


What advice do you have for young writers and illustrators? 

For writers: 

  • Read widely. Write often. Edit carefully.  
  • When editing on screen, read the words out loud, as it helps you pick up missed words or errors in the text. It also helps you check the cadences and rhythms of your writing.  
  • Print out the text and edit it on hard copy if you can, as it’s easy to miss details on screen.  
  • Never, ever give up!  


For illustrators: 

  • Look carefully at the work of other artists. Sketch often. Experiment with different media. Develop your own style. 
  • When editing your images, leave the artwork out on a bench where you’ll walk past it. Have a notebook beside it, and jot down things like ‘Left eyebrow needs to be higher’, ‘Mouth is crooked’ or ‘Change the colour of the dress’. Once you have list of observations, rework the image. 
  • Never, ever give up!    


Who influenced you to become a writer/illustrator? 

There were always books in my home as a child. I received them as birthday and Christmas presents and for when I’d done well at school. I also had writing paper and art materials to hand, which is why I was able to write and illustrate my first book of poems at age 7. I still remember the joy of receiving my first copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was eight and my first box of Derwent pencils.  

And of course there were the very special teachers who encouraged me to write and draw. I must admit I was often totally embarrassed when teachers read my stories and essays or put my artwork on display, but it taught me to have faith in my ability to express myself in both images and words. I am eternally grateful to those teachers for their ongoing encouragement!  


What are your contact details (so schools can get in contact with you) 

My contact details are available through my website at https://stephanieowenreeder.com/ 


Related Posts: 

Writers And Their Notebooks: Claire Saxby 

Writers And Their Notebooks: Gabriel Evans 

Writers And Their Notebooks: Katrina Germein 



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