The Writer’s Notebook: In Praise of Paper

The writer’s notebook is not my idea; it’s been touted by all kinds of English teacher greats. If you don’t use one or don’t know what one is, you are missing out. For real.

I have used this tool since my second year of teaching, with various evolutions and modifications.  It takes different forms in each of the courses I teach. In my Creative Writing and English 4 classes, the notebook is more traditional, a sketchbook to practice writing. In my AP Literature class, the notebook is for reading response; students are allowed to respond to the assigned reading however they like, however they connect personally with the text.

My favorite medium for the writer’s notebook is a cheap composition notebook. However, recently I have been wondering, amidst all the discussion of digital literacy, if I should allow a further evolution of the notebook.

Should I, I wondered, move to more of a blog format for the notebook? Should I allow students to choose digital or paper entries? Am I being a Luddite by holding one to my cute little composition notebooks (although dragging 160 composition notebooks around to grade them definitely doesn’t engender any endearing thoughts)?

I’ve been reading a couple of books lately on living well in the digital age, and my reading has helped me make some decisions regarding this tool. I have found myself once again in support of the lowly notebook.

Here are seven reasons why I have made the decision to keep the paper:

1.  The notebook is cheap.  I routinely pick up loads of these at discount stores right before school starts for $.50 each.  I try to always have some on hand for students who can’t get to the store or who do get to the store only to find that the elementary students have purchased all the notebooks.

If you prefer the spiral variety, you can purchase those for $.10 each. I have my reasons for not liking spirals, but that’s an option. I won’t judge you, but when those little metal, twisty, sharp bindings snag your clothing or ensure that three notebooks will be stuck together for the rest of the year, just don’t come to me.

2.  The notebook is fast. I can grab my notebook and jot down a thought in hardly any time at all. I don’t have to boot up a device, choose the appropriate software, or worry about where to save the file so that I will remember where I put it.

Similarly, I can have an entire class pull out their notebooks quickly and have them respond to a question or a writing prompt in 5 minutes. I don’t have to answer any questions about passwords or wireless speed or which program I want them to use.

3.  The notebook is portable and welcome almost anywhere.  I can carry it in my purse and whip it out when I have a free moment. I can take notes in a meeting or other public gathering and simultaneously jot down the thoughts that seem to race through my brain whenever I’m in a quiet place.  And because the notebook doesn’t easily multitask, it’s not likely that I will be asked to put it away or silence it.

4. The notebook is tactile.  I can hold it, decorate it, flip through it, turn it, slam it shut in frustration, or tap my fingernails on it when I’m pensive.

I hadn’t really thought much about this trait of notebooks, but today I came across this passage in Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers on why he is devoted to his Moleskine journal:

Among researchers who study how humans interact with technology, there’s a theory known as embodied interaction, which says that three-dimensional tools are easier on the mind in certain important ways. This makes intuitive sense. Think of a screen with a dozen different documents open, all layered on top of one another, and what a pain it is try [sic] to organize and keep track of them all at once, using just your clicker and keyboard. Sometimes you want to reach in there and grab them but you can’t. Reading and writing on screen, we expend a great deal of mental energy just navigating. Paper’s tangibility allows the hands and fingers to take over much of the navigational burden, freeing the brain to think. Because a notebook has a body, it works more naturally with our bodies. At a time when movies and other screen experience are striving for 3-D effects, paper is in one sense ahead of the curve. (153-154)

5. The notebook is less prone to distraction.  Of all the downsides to screens in my life, what frustrates me most is the temptation to be distracted. Even in my attempt to write this blog post, I have checked my email, caught up on Twitter, read a few interesting articles, all activities that take time away from my actual writing. In contrast, I wrote two and a half handwritten pages as a rough draft of this post in the span of 10 minutes.

6. The notebook is calming.  It allows us space to turn inward and ignore the world crowding in. It’s a place to explore deeply personal reactions and reflections. Kids, like most of us adults, are starved for silence and focus, qualities that they may not even have experienced before, qualities that are necessary for creativity.  Students who come from chaotic home lives may need this calming space the most.  We may have to actually teach them how to access it if they are unused to reflective silence.

I absolutely love those few minutes in the class period when everyone is writing and the main noise is the scratching of the pens or pencils. I get the chillbumps of contentment just thinking about these times.  These are some of the few minutes when they and I can concentrate, a respite from a harried day, when we can turn our focus to the self rather than the crowd.

7. The notebook is private. Except for me, no one will read my students’ notebooks without the express permission of the writer.  The notebook is a place for the writer to work out his or her private thoughts.  It’s necessarily rough work, and as such, there is no need to worry about audience. When there is no need to worry about audience, I don’t censor myself. I write the unpublishable. I let thoughts out and onto the paper with freedom.  Sometimes I just need to purge my cluttered mind. Sometimes I need to express my thoughts to myself and no one else, thoughts I need to incubate before they are ready for the wider world.

None of this is to say, of course, that I’m against digital writing. I am all for improving our writing in the digital realm (obviously, or this blog would be my ultimate hypocrisy).  Perhaps someday our improved technology will allow private space for creative work.  We shouldn’t forget, however, that the notebook itself is a technology. Writing is a technology; the pen is a technology.  So this really isn’t a question of whether or not we will use technology; it’s rather a question of what technology we will use—which is most appropriate for the job we need to do. In order to be able to present our writing to the world, we first must create it as individuals.  The notebook is a technology that creates a space where the difficult and solitary work of creativity may be completed.

Powers, W. (2010). Hamlet’s Blackberry: A practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age. New York, NY: Harper Collins.


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