Pretty little notebooks

Getting over the need for perfect drafts

A pile of “pretty little notebooks” full of imperfect little drafts.

Pretty little notebooks all in a row.

Pricy little notebooks, collected on a shelf.

Each a perfect possibility.

Too lovely to ruin with first imperfect words.

Better to leave blank with possibility than full of certain ruin.

I love pretty notebooks. Every one of them a possibility that this will be the one: the notebook that is finally filled perfectly with lovely poems, and stories, and perfect hand writing. So you know what I like to do?

I like to crack them open and ruin them a little bit. I write something imperfect in the middle: my grocery list, a “to do” list, a brainstorm for a paper I’m thinking about writing. Once the imperfect first page is out of the way I get to be over the feeling that this notebook needs to be full of only perfect things.

Students, too, need support in getting over the need for perfection. Better to not start, so many demonstrate, and retain the possibility of perfection, than to begin imperfectly and have the world see we don’t actually know it all just yet. So lately I have tried to actually make visible some of the editing I do while writing to share with my young writers. A published novel, after all, is a final draft, and demonstrating for students that drafting can be messy, mentally taxing, and sometimes physically exhausting is so often invisible work.


How do we get students drafting and get them off the idea that the draft needs to be perfect? Presented in imperfect order, my thoughts as a teacher/ writer/ teacher of writing (because TPCK is a thousand percent applicable to teaching writing, too).

1. Scaffold

You’re gonna have to get uncomfortable for this one. You know the “I do, we do, you do” mantra? Yeah… you’re gonna have to actually draft in front of students (I actually pre-draft ’cause it’s darn hard to make up on the spot) but when I’m demonstrating drafting and thinking about drafting I sure am verbalizing the doubting, messy, back-and-forth mental gymnastics of putting words on paper. If students are to take a risk then we should, to. Students need to see the struggle.

2. Ditch the pencil

Teach young kids to write in pen. Too often they erase and get stuck making a perfect draft by erasing, but I think more powerful is teaching students the power of a single stroke to take off a wrong word while drafting and keep writing! Momentum is a powerful writing tool!

3. Use a pencil

Teachers love coloured pens, don’t we? Sometimes a new pack of fine-tipped sharpies makes me so happy. So silly. But an interesting thing happened when I stopped marking in pen. Students responded to pencil because they can remove my marks if they still want their perfect draft. In the end the notes and scribbles are for the student not for me or for the parent. If the child takes the note and improves the draft then we have met our goal. Learning notes go in the learner profile not in the notebook.

As a writer, too, I love my pencil because it takes away the permanency. If I need to erase I can and the work can be “perfect” if I want it to be.

4. Use an organizer

Planning for writing is hard even when you’re a master of standard spelling and a pretty good placer of commas. My outlines are usually pencil scribbles of ideas I want to hit in each paragraph or story maps with scribbled notes. Kids need more structure… copy a planner… (there are many fab planners out there… cult of pedagogy has many) or teach a child to draw one in their sketch journal if you can’t find what you want. My students love coffee-lid tracers, which we label with story elements. They love the graphic novel tracer templates that hang by the phone. Take away one executive task by planning for writing and writing in separate writing sessions.

But… Ever tried planning for writing using that writing planner you just copied? No? (No guilt trip here, man… I’ve done it… copied the planner, handed it out, checked the box on the list… “planner provided”) But, sometimes those planners are really unwieldy as a writing tool. So I’ve learned if I want students to use it I better trial it first. What writing experience will the learner actually have while using it? If you don’t try it you won’t know.

5. Don’t use an organizer

Sometimes a beautiful draft just spills onto the page. Make space for imperfect lovely drafts to spill out.

6. Drafting is a physical act: use stickies or a bulletin board

I like my bulletin board. In my own drafting there is always a place where the work becomes too unwieldy to hold in my head and I need index cards to map it out. This is my next goal with students: writing folders with sticky notes to move and map. (I’ll let you know how it goes)

7. Imperfect first drafts

Don’t fix it… hit enter and keep typing. Turn the page and keep going.

When drafting and it’s not going the way I want it to I turn the page. That way there is a possibility of a perfect page. Don’t erase! Drafting is NOT editing or revising! (Well… sometimes it is… but let’s make space for the visceral experience of drafting without the inner editor on our shoulders.)

8. Provide an audience

Most kids I know loooove to read their work aloud. This takes off the pressure of perfect spelling and grammar. A piece read aloud is full of the writer’s voice even when the writer benefits from continued support in developing the tools to wrangle that voice down onto paper.

9. Grey space

Ever try to conjure a poem out of the air? The good stuff rarely comes when we call it. The truth, for me anyway, is that the good stuff comes when otherwise engaged. Walking, washing dishes, soaking in the tub… they don’t look like writing, but will more often lead to desperately seeking a pencil than trying to bid a poem come.

10. Mentor texts, mentor texts, mentor texts

Good writers are readers. Demonstrate voice by sharing story. Read it once for story sense. Read it again to pick apart the writer’s tool box… notice that beautiful turn of phrase? How did the author create suspense? What does the writer assume the reader already knows?

So here’s to more grey space, more productive wandering, more noticing beautiful words and unexpected combinations. Here’s to more creative risk taking for students and teachers alike.

* This post is a messy schmoz of teacher-writer advice and personal notes to self. If it’s useful to you then leave a note. I’d love to know you’re there. If you have other ideas I’d LOVE to hear them!

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