You’re not just reading the words any more; you’re interacting with them, all the better to understand and to benefit from what you learn.
To help you in this, we created this brief but powerful guide on how to annotate a book. As you learn, feel free to apply your new skills to this post.
- What Does It Mean to Annotate a Book?
- What Is the Best Way to Annotate a Book?
- How to Annotate a Book: The 9 Key Steps
- How to Annotate a Novel
What Does It Mean to Annotate a Book?
Annotating a book means adding notes of your own — wherever they’ll fit on the page or in a separate notebook — to connect your own thoughts to what you’re reading or clarify something in the text.
Why would you annotate a book, though?
- To highlight (and find meaning for) unfamiliar words and expressions
- To argue with a point the author is making
- To force yourself to back up your argument (opinions only get you so far)
- To understand the material well enough to take a test on it
- To find and highlight hidden gems for your own research
Whatever your reasons for annotating a book, you probably reach for the same tools (highlighter, favorite pen, sticky tabs, etc.) before you dive in. So, how will you make the best use of them?
What Is the Best Way to Annotate a Book?
Briefly put, the best way to annotate a book is the way that works best for you. You’re the one having a conversation with the text, and you’re the one who’ll be using your annotated copy as a reference.
To get the most benefit, though, it helps to know what to look for when annotating a book:
- Questions you have — and the answers you find
- Unfamiliar words or turns of phrase
- Meaningful quotes or passages
- Connections to other works (text to text)
- Real-world connections (text to world)
- Connections with your own knowledge and experience (text to self)
- Familiar or recurring themes/symbolism
When you’re looking for things to annotate in a book, keep your own goals in mind. What do you most want to gain from reading this? What are you hoping to learn?
Aside from your questions, get clear on your end goal, whether that’s passing a test, understanding something better, or being able to talk knowledgeably about the main idea.
You can annotate anything that stands out for you, whether you find it meaningful, entertaining, or difficult to understand. Add your own commentary to record thoughts you’ll want to remember.
When you’re finished, the book should bear evidence of an active and thoughtful conversation between you and the words within. And the next time you look through the book, echoes of that conversation will come back to you.
How to Annotate a Book: The 9 Key Steps
The following nine steps to annotating a book are as simple and straightforward as they are adaptable to your unique situation. Your ideal active reading space (and time) will likely differ from someone else’s, just as your conversation with a book will be different.
What you bring to each book is uniquely yours. Make it a conversation worth having.
1. Remove distractions.
Work in a place where no one and nothing will sabotage your concentration. For the next chunk of time, you are indisposed and unavailable. Silence your phone, lock your door, or do what you need to do (within reason) to ensure privacy and peace.
Think of it as setting aside time and space for a meaningful conversation.
2. Gather your tools
Round up your highlighter pen or pens (in multiple colors), your favorite pen or pencil, some sticky notes or sticky tabs, a stack of notecards, and even a separate notebook or notepad. The more prepared you are to interact with the text, the more fun this will be.
Gathering your tools of engagement is one way to remind yourself you’re taking this seriously (but also looking forward to it).
3. Create your own key with symbols.
One symbol can carry several lines’ worth of notes. Using symbols from your own key makes it easy to add quick but meaningful annotations.
Consider the following book annotation examples using familiar symbols:
- ? — “This needs clarification” or “I don’t know what this word means.”
- ! — “This!” or “I agree with this sentence 100%!”
- * — (Inserted after a word or phrase) “See note in margin / below”
- &? — “And then what?” or “This feels incomplete.”
- @ — “Don’t get me started (or do, at your own risk).”
As you work through a text, you’ll probably think of other symbols to add.
4. Read the book carefully.
Don’t rush through it. You’re on a hunt for meaning; this isn’t a race. Active reading is slow enough to get everything you need from the text.
When you read more quickly than you can process the information, you’re more likely to use your highlighter indiscriminately, making it more difficult to find key phrases when you look through the text afterward.
Slower, more mindful reading allows you to annotate more effectively.
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5. Mark up the text.
If this is your copy of the book, and nothing’s stopping you from marking up the pages, the following are great ways to do it:
- Underline or highlight key passages or phrases. You’ll do this mainly with short passages — not those that take a third or more of the page.
- Use brackets to set apart larger passages (one third to more of the page)
- Circle or box key words or unfamiliar words. Maybe use a specific ink color.
- Use arrows to link together ideas or keywords on the page.
6. Write notes in the margins.
Jot down reflective questions or comments right alongside highlighted text in the outside margin. This is where you’re engaging with specific parts of the page.
You can use the top margin for this, too. Or save it for brief notes or keywords to speed up your search for the right page when you’re looking for specific content.
Use the bottom margin to summarize the whole page with key points or questions or helpful notes. You can also list related texts or ideas to look up.
7. Use sticky notes or tabs.
Make these more valuable by adding keywords to make your notes easier to find. Sticky notes provide more room for brief notes of your own, including cross-references and keywords.
With sticky tabs, you’re limited to single words or references to page or chapter numbers.
The point of these is to create a system of tab dividers or reference tabs to make it easier to find information on specific topics or keywords.
8. Use the “notes” feature on your e-reader/reading app.
This applies if you’re reading this book on an e-reader or eBook app. Unless your device and reading app allow you to add handwritten notes using a stylus pen, you’ll click where you want the note, select the note feature, and type in the note you want to leave.
Ereaders and eBook apps also come with a highlighting feature — often with different colors — and a bookmarking feature to make accessing the most important pages quicker and easier.
9. Create a companion annotation notebook.
If you’re allowed to mark up your printed copy, this isn’t strictly required, but it gives you a separate record of important passages or quotes, along with your own responses to each.
If you’re working with a borrowed text, this will be your personal record of everything you’ve learned from the book.
You can then highlight your written notes and add sticky tabs with keywords or chapter numbers to create a valuable reference book and study guide.
How to Annotate a Novel
Annotating a novel looks a lot like annotating a nonfiction book. The differences will depend on why you’re reading the novel.
If you’re reading for your enjoyment, you may not annotate much. But once you’ve built the habit of active reading, you’ll probably want to keep your tools handy just in case.
If you’re reading for a class or for a book club, the stakes are higher. You want to know the novel well enough to write or talk about it.
So, you’ll want to have a closer relationship with the story, its characters, and its world.
That reason alone is a strong recommendation for book clubs. You’ll read with more attention because you know it’ll make those book club meetings more enjoyable. Plus, you’ll remember the story better than if you hadn’t bothered engaging with it.
Annotating a novel can include all the steps listed for a nonfiction book, though you may not create a companion notebook (but it couldn’t hurt). Just remember the following:
- This isn’t a test. It’s a way for you to get the most out of what you’re reading.
- You still get to enjoy the story. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy it even more.
- When you write something down, your brain makes more connections.
Ready to start annotating a book?
Now that you know how to annotate a book, what titles come to mind? Which annotating techniques have you used so far?
And what did you learn from this post that you’ll apply this week?
Don’t be disappointed if you find your conversation with a particular book wasn’t as satisfying or illuminating as you’d hoped. If you pick it up again at a different time, the results may be different.
Because you will be.