The Writer's Notebook in Secondary ELA: Introduction & FREE Guide

The Writer’s Notebook is the heart of the English classroom. It is the place that holds a student’s reflections on literature and life. It is the place where a student goes to record important notes about a text for further study and writing. It is the place where students can explore new words, ideas, and the world at large. Using the Writer’s Notebook in your classroom helps to keep both the students and teacher organized. It also provides a practical format for assessing student work, progress, and overall performance.

Writers in the “real” world actually keep Writer’s Notebooks. Granted, many modern writers do not actually keep physical notebooks but rather word documents on the computer or notes on their mobile phone notepads. Nonetheless, real world writers pay attention to the world around them, explore new ideas and concepts, and record these findings. This is the essence of the Writer’s Notebook.

Take Woody Allen, for example. All of his personal life controversy put aside, Allen actually keeps a physical writer’s notebook. He has spoken about how he writes down new movie ideas in the notebook, and when it comes time to make a film, he flips through it (sometimes at total random) and makes the movie that he lands on. For other examples, just visit the “Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library” in London to find Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, songs written by The Beatles on scraps of paper, and the hand-written, sole-surviving copy of the epic poem Beowulf. The point is that real life writers record their thoughts, ideas, questions, and observations to use when the time is “right.” It is important to have a space to record these things because we cannot possibly remember every thought we have or observation that we make about the world. We need to write things down. We need to be able to go back, reflect, edit/ revise, cut/paste, delete as needed throughout the writing process.

The Writer’s Notebook should be seen first and foremost as a vehicle for the writing process. The Writer’s Notebook transcends grade level. ANY student in ANY grade can use it. In fact, I give my students the exact same Writer’s Notebook directives and expectations no matter if they are in 9th grade or 12th grade. The structure remains the same. The only element that varies among grade levels is the content, which changes based upon the literature and writing tasks required by each grade level’s curriculum.

There are multiple ways to format the Writer’s Notebook. However, the method that I share here is one that I have adapted over many years of teaching across high school grade levels. To begin, students need to purchase a 5-subject, college-ruled spiral notebook. It is important that the pages are college-ruled because this will affect how much a student is able to write on a single page, which affects how the pages will be assessed. A high school student SHOULD NOT be using wide-ruled paper anyway. That is for elementary school. I give the students one week to bring in their spirals for a check grade, and I always check the paper. If a student comes to class with a wide-ruled spiral, that student has to go back to the store and purchase one that is college ruled. Also, make sure that students bring in a spiral that is at least 8 ½ x 11 inches (standard paper size or larger). Sometimes, a student will bring in a spiral that is memo size. This will NOT WORK because it makes it impossible to assess the amount of writing the same as other students. Again, this student will have to go back to the store and purchase the correct spiral. Not to worry because most students will bring in the correct spiral, but there might be a few who never bring one in or who cannot afford one. I always purchase spirals for these students myself (2-3 at most) so that these students can be on the same page with the rest of the class, and I do not penalize their grades for not having brought in their own spiral.

Some students may inquire if they can use a regular, three-ring binder with paper instead of the spiral. It is up to you on how you want to approach this, but I do not allow students to use a three-ring binder simply because they are cumbersome for students to carry around, they inhibit the student’s ability to carry their writer’s notebooks with them everywhere, and they are very cumbersome to deal with when students submit them for grading. That being said, you can experiment with binders if that best suits your students’ needs and your grading methods.

One of the BEST benefits of the Writer’s Notebook is that it enables a quicker, more efficient grading process. Rather than taking multiple homework/ classwork grades daily, the Writer’s Notebook enables the teacher to check periodically for multiple items at a time. This cuts down on the teacher’s daily grading load by reducing it to periodic assessments. A grading rubric is included here in this booklet along with tips for grading that will enable you to assess the notebooks more quickly and efficiently. Students are to divide the Writer’s Notebook into FIVE sections: writing, notes, vocabulary, free space, and extra storage. These sections are explained in the pages that follow, accompanied by reproducible handouts for your students so that they can keep track of the requirements for the Writer’s Notebook. Let’s get started the “write” way with the Writer’s Notebook!

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Click on the image above to download a copy of the Bespoke ELA FREE Writer's Notebook Guide.

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About the Author

Meredith is the founder and creator of and Bespoke ELA.  She has taught high school English for 10+ years in Dallas, Chicago, and New York City and holds a M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University.  She has always had a connection to the written word-- through songwriting, screenplay writing, and essay writing-- and she enjoys the process of teaching students how to express their ideas.  An avid tea drinker and anglophile, Meredith enjoys life with her husband, daughter, and sweet pups.