Writing is dangerous. Silence leaves everything up the imagination. Spoken words fade as soon as uttered. But writing lasts forever as a concrete monument to one’s persona, knowledge, and ideas. It can be closely examined, dissected, and easily picked apart. This is a major issue for writing teachers because teens, while they may throw caution to the wind in some areas, are highly risk averse when it comes to exposing their true inner selves, and that is exactly what writing asks an author to do if she/he/they is to truly write.
This danger inherent in writing is why I have my writers keep what I call a writing sketchbook, which is a notebook of writing that is purely for them and their tinkering. The first time I saw a version of this idea was when I read Inside Writing by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle. Murray and Kittle explain that quick writes, where authors experiment and develop ideas, are a foundational component of the writing process, and thus they should be foundational to our classes. This idea is further discussed in the fabulous new addition to writing instruction literature Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell when Marchetti and O’Dell say the following:
“Somewhere along the way [students] have become afraid of ‘doing it wrong,’ afraid of doing anything other than what is explicitly set forth on a rubric. In order to grow as writers, students need safe places to play with writing–places that aren’t assessed or evaluated or given a grade. They need places where their work can be messy, where thinking outside the box and being with wild ideas is encouraged. This is why we have daily notebook time.” (86)
Whether it is framed as a daily notebook, quick write, sketchbook, or something else, new writers (and arguably all writers) need a safe harbor to stumble, play, practice, learn, and refine their writing before they venture into the much more dangerous waters of the wider world. If they don’t have this safe spot, they likely won’t stretch their abilities because they will fear criticism, embarrassment, or a bad grade, and that will significantly slow their development. The fact of the matter is that writers need to produce a lot of junk as a necessary step to producing strong work. Most professional writers are unapologetic about this process. Hemingway boasted about writing 39 endings to A Farewell to Arms and Vladimir Nabokov once said that “I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” (A wonderful list of writer quotations concerning junky first drafts and the importance of revision is in this wonderful Atlantic article here.) But students often don’t know that and need a clear safe harbor provided to them along with a direct explanation for why it is necessary.
How you structure that harbor and what you call it depends on your classes, as it can have a thousand different names and still fill the same role. I like the term sketchbook because when artists sketch, they practice small areas of their craft in anticipation of larger projects where those skills will need to be polished. That is exactly how I see my classroom writing working, and so by calling it a sketchbook and showing concrete examples of sketches like the one from Leonardo Da Vinci below, the students quickly gain an understanding of why these short writes matter.
My rules for my sketchbooks are simple and designed to make them as safe as possible. I tell students that…
- I will never read your sketchbook unless you give me permission.
- No one else will ever read anything in your sketchbook unless you give permission.
- If you ask, I am happy to give you feedback on anything in the book.
- Sharing work from your sketchbook is always encouraged, as we can learn so much from each other!
- To thine own self be true in your book. Whatever work you do in it is all about finding and refining your voice! The more you strive to be you, the more effective it will be.
- Try something new! Take risks! This is the place for it.
- Keep all entries in the same notebook. When artists and writers work on polished pieces, they generally refer back to their sketches. I encourage you to do the same, as those little studies can and will add depth to the piece you are working on, and keeping them in one spot will make them easy to find.
After that, I hold true to my word and don’t look at or comment on the work that they do in there. The one exception to that is I will nudge students who are not writing (either because they are stuck or “done”) to write or write more, but even then I am careful not to read what is in the sketchbook unless they give me permission.
So if you don’t already, I urge you to build a safe harbor for your students to regularly practice in. It might seem like a little detail, in the same way that a seawall might on the surface seem like a minor addition to a harbor, but in both situations there are a lot of things that can only be done when one is protected from rougher waters.