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Travis Poling
Linda Valley & Kathy Flatter
20 June 2015
Writer's Notebooks for College Composition
"The act of writing is the only way to become a better writer" (Schneider 63).
I've been practicing writing in notebooks since early high school, and as long as I've been
using a notebook to collect my ideas and drafts, I've been living the life of a writer. Teaching
adults to write in college should involve more than just writing a few essays. Instead, it should
model methods for writing that they can carry with them throughout their college and
professional careers. To the extent that careers and classes require writing for thinking and
communication, students should be empowered to live a writing life.
Ralph Fletcher calls the writer's notebook “the most important tool I use” as a
professional writer (A Writer's Notebook 2-3). I've had the occasional student ask me for advice
on how to best get into writing in a serious way, and my response has always been to write as
much as possible. As I think back on my own writing activity over the years, the notebook has
been crucial to my development. Whenever I haven't kept a notebook, my life as a writer grew
stagnant. And when I would pick the notebook back up, my writing life grew deeper and richer.
Even as I migrate to digital writing tools, the notebook has been at the center of my creative
process. Now I want to share with all my students, not only the ones who want to write more
intentionally after the semester is over, what the writer's notebook can do for their writing.

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Getting Used to Writing
Perhaps the greatest benefit for the writer’s notebook, especially to students who are not
very familiar with writing to think, is to simply get them used to writing. Fletcher says that “a
writer's notebook gives you a place to live like a writer, not just in school during writing time,
but wherever you are, any time of day” (4). Pat Schneider, founder of the Amherst Writers &
Artists workshop method of teaching creative writing, explains that "the writer's journal is the
studio in which we do the hard, consistent work of practice of our craft, patient with ourselves,
but diligent toward the accomplishment of improving and realizing our craft" (63). The notebook
can be the place where writers work out their anxiety and unknowing alongside the formal
writing process.
As "a 'low-risk, high-comfort' place for students to write" (Fletcher and Portalupi 26),
notebooks can begin to take away the stigma against writing, especially if the notebook belongs
to the student and is not included in any grading system. Natalie Goldberg writes about the
writing process for a general, non-student audience. She recommends the notebook because, for
her, "I am not writing anymore for a teacher or for school. I am writing for myself first and I
don't have to stay within my limits, not even margins. This gives me psychological freedom and
permission" (12). This permission to write whatever occurs is very often necessary for those who
have come through an education system that too often tells students they are not and never will
be writers.
Most importantly, writing can change the way students approach not only their topics, but
their education overall. Corbett Harrison is a school teacher who uses the notebook extensively
in his classes. After beginning a regular schedule of writing, Harrison says that students "start to
move through the world with not just an observer's eyes but a writer's eyes. Writer's don't just
observe the world; they also bother to write their observations down." Students can observe and

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think all they want, but writing strengthens both critical and creative thinking necessary to move
their education in the direction of creative and critical thinking.

Using the Notebook for Academic Writing
The writer’s notebook has proven to be a very effective method in the teaching and
practice of writing. In my own experience, using the notebook for all genres of writing will only
deepen the craft of the writer. Goldberg says, "This writing practice is also a warm-up for
anything else you might want to write. It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential
beginning of writing. The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business
letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir" (13). I teach my students that the same
methods we use for prewriting or drafting or revising a story can be used for a persuasive essay.
The writer’s notebook can be one place where much of this work takes place.
In her book Nonfiction Notebooks, Aimee Buckner provides exercises for informational
writing with elementary students that could be adapted for use with adult learners. One exercise
that caught my attention is a way to add emotion to research assignments. After studying the
ways a mentor text invokes emotions about a particular topic, Buckner asks her students what
emotions their research topic brings up: “Are you angry that people use dogs to fight? Are you
worried that kids with peanut allergies don't have enough lunch choices? Are you fascinated by
how a jaguar survives in the jungle? What's your feeling?” She then directs them to “take a
moment to think about that and then write briefly about it in your notebook” (84). She then has
them share with neighbors and “generate a list of words and phrases that are about your topic and
will give off the vibe that you're trying to pass on to your reader” (84-85). Awareness of
emotions in one’s writing can be particularly useful when teaching audience analysis and the
methods of persuasion.

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The textbook I use for my composition classes¸ The Norton Field Guide to Writing,
doesn’t name the writer’s notebook. However, the textbook lists journaling along with “other
types of informal writing” that are “like warm-up exercises to limber you up and get you
thinking” (Bullock et al 269). One exercise it suggests is “to study the ideas in your personal
writing [by highlighting] useful patterns in different colors. For example, journal entries usually
involve some questioning and speculating, as well as summarizing and paraphrasing. Try color
coding each of these” and if “any colors dominate,” consider using additional techniques in your
writing (270). The journal or notebook is not named as the location for this exercise, but it is one
method to connect a writer’s informal writing (as could take place in the notebook) with
concepts of composition.

Ways to Use Notebooks in Class
There are numerous ways that writer’s notebooks have been used in the writing class.
Fletcher and Portalupi say teachers should "write with your students" (26). This models a life of
writing and the willingness to be as vulnerable as you are asking your students to be. Harrison
uses the notebook for "the first ten minutes of class every day [in] what we call Sacred Writing
Time--or SWT. It's sacred because it's guaranteed…[and] because it's quiet and we take it very
seriously." Just as important for Harrison as the dailiness is where the control lies: "What they
write about during those ten minutes of SWT is completely up to my students. I have found when
my students write about self-selected topics that they actually care about, they tend to practice
better writing strategies and try to put their better skills to work for them.”
Mignon Fogarty, creator of the Grammar Girl podcast series, talks about the journal
being a safe place of exploration: "This isn't about getting perfect writing. It's about practicing
writing and exploring your ideas. It should be something that won't be judged, graded, or really

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read by others. It's most effective if it's a safe place.” (Fogarty) For this reason, I feel that it is
important for my students to have the freedom to choose if they use a writer’s notebook, the
ability to purchase and own their notebook, and the understanding that it will not be collected
and graded.
The most important part of composition class is for students to be fully empowered to
write on their own terms. I believe that the writer must be absolutely free of outside directives for
how to use their notebook, and must be solely empowered to say what goes in it and who gets to
see it. As a teacher, I can suggest and invite use of the writer's notebook. But I can't demand to
see it, and I can't place a value on it in terms of a grade. If students are using a notebook, their
writing will show it. I can't require them to use it. What I can do is offer it as a legitimate tool for
exploration and practice.

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Works Cited
Buckner, Aimee. Nonfiction Notebooks. Portland, ME: Stenhouse P, 2013. Print.
Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin and Francine Weinberg. The Norton Field Guide to
Writing. 3rd ed. New York: WWNorton, 2013. Print.
Fletcher, Ralph. A Writer’s Notebook. NewYork: HarperTrophy, 1996. Print.
--- and JoAnn Portalupi. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann,
2001. Print.
Fogarty, Mignon. "Should Writers Keep a Journal?" Grammar Girl. Quick and Dirty Tips. 11
Sept. 2009. Web. 15 June 2015.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambala,
2005. Print.
Harrison, Corbett. "Writer's Notebooks." Always Write. 2015. Web. 15 June 2015.
Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and with Others. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.