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How to Annotate

How to Annotate

Feb 14, 2013 - Posted to  Writing in General
Good reading comprehension skills are an important part of any education. From biology to English to history, every class you take in school requires you to be able to read in order to memorize facts, analyze ideas, and understand complex material. Getting the most out of your reading assignments isn't always easy though, especially when you have a big pile of books in front of you. It's tempting to read quickly just to get through it all, but taking the time to really engage with the text will help you in the long run. And, when it comes to reading, there's no better way to stay focused than through the simple process of taking notes.

What does it mean to annotate?

Annotation is the practice of taking notes directly on a text. For students, this usually means writing down questions or marking important passages in the margins of book or on handouts. You may also see the word annotated used to describe published works. For example, an annotated version of a Shakespearian play would include the original text alongside notes that provide more information about the text such as definitions or explanations of allusions. In fact, sometimes annotations can become famous on their own. For example, a sought-after copy of a book by the Renaissance scientist William Gilbert has the author's own handwritten notes in the margin marking passages and terms he thought were important.

Why annotate?

Annotations serve two main purposes. The first is to keep a record of what you're reading that will make it easy for you to go back and find key ideas, phrases, or data that you will need later. This is especially important if you're working on a large research project, since you'll likely be reading dozens or hundreds of books, articles, and other texts. Taking notes directly on the text will simplify the writing process later on down the road. The second purpose of annotating is to help you become more involved with the text. When reading for a class or project it's easy to just passively take in information that will then be forgotten as soon as you put down the book. Annotating is a way for you fight that forgetfulness by engaging with the text; you'll be forming opinions and asking questions as you read, which is one of the best ways not only to memorize but also to start the analytical process.

What to write down

Think of the process of annotating your reading as being like a conversation. The author is telling you a story or presenting an argument to you, and your annotation is the record of your response. Maybe you thought a particular image was especially powerful, or maybe you disagree with the author's interpretation of a piece of evidence. Whatever your interaction with the text, you want your notes to be a reflection of that. However, you don't want to just jot down whatever comes into your head; instead, your notes should form a systematic analysis of the text that will help you better understand the work.
Note: Most of the suggestions below focus on reading and annotating in the humanities, but many can also be used when reading scientific text such as textbook or journal articles.

Summarize

While you certainly don't want to spend too much time recapping what you've read, writing a short summary at the end of each chapter or section can be a great way to help you remember important facts or details from the text. If you're reading a novel or play, a short two- or three- sentence summary can help you process what you've read and will also come in handy in the future if you need to find a particular scene in a long work. For scientific reading, it's often useful to jot down the key terms at the end of a chapter or a short summary of a journal article at the end of the discussion.

Explain relationships

An important part of annotating is discovering and explaining relationships between the text you're reading and the wider world. These types of notes are great for class discussions and are also useful if you're looking for an essay topic.
  • Text to text: How does the text you're reading relate to other works you've studied before? For the humanities this might mean noting allusions to other works, commenting on the similarities in style or theme between readings, or marking passages that set apart this particular author. In the sciences, comparing texts might mean looking at differences in sampling methods or noting how two scientists choose to attack the same theoretical question.
  • Text to world: How does the text relate to the larger world? Is the author working with themes that concern common issues like politics, relationships, or current events? Authors are often trying to send a message about the way the world is or how they think it should be, so make sure to note passages where you see these ideas articulated.
  • Text to self: How do you react personally to the text? It's generally not a good idea to spend too much time focusing on your feelings about a work for their own sake, but these can often provide a starting point for further discussion. Was there a part of the work that stirred strong emotions such as disgust or sadness? If so, try to dig a little deeper and note how those passages work on the reader. This topic is particularly important for texts like poems or persuasive essays whose aim is to make the reader feel a particular way.

Ask questions

There's nothing wrong with not understanding all of a reading assignment, and annotations are a good place to keep a record of just what it was about the text that left you feeling confused. This might be technical concerns-for instance, if you don't understand an allusion to a painting you've never seen or if the action is confusing. But you can also take note of more complex questions, even if there might be no clear answer. For example, you might be wondering why an author choose to write a scene a specific way or whether a historian is misinterpreting a primary text. These questions will help further your understand of the work and can also make good topics to discuss in class.
Keeping track of your questions through annotation is especially useful for scientific texts, for example if you are unsure about experimental methods or previous works not discussed in detail in the text. It can also be a good idea to circle or underline words and technical terms you don't know so that you can look them up immediately or later when you have more time. Remember, part of the process of academic readings is asking questions and engaging with other people about what you've read, so don't hesitate to mark a passage you don't understand.

Make predictions

If you're reading a novel or play, it can often be helpful to make predictions as you read. You might try to guess how a character is going to handle a situation or what will happen next in the plot. While these predictions aren't usually all that interesting on their own, it can be helpful to look back once you've finished the work to see whether they were accurate. If so, what aspects of the book allowed you to correctly guess what would happen next? If not, why do you think you were wrong? Did the author intentionally mislead you, or did you maybe misinterpret a previous section of the book? For scientific research papers, you should also make a note if the results were different than you would have expected.

Note key passages and terms

All of the previous suggestion for annotations were for general reading assignments, but it may be that your annotations will focus on a particular topic. For example, if you're working on research project, you may note passages in the text that could be useful in your paper such as important quotes, data, or ideas. Doing this type of annotation as you go will save you a lot of time and trouble down the road when you need to find evidence to use in your paper. Instead of combing back through the entire work, you can look through your notes instead.

Creating a system

Annotation works best when you create a system that you use regularly. Everybody reads a little bit differently, but the key is finding a way of taking notes that will help you accomplish your particular goal. For example, you might want to color-code using highlighters or post-its if having different colors for questions, vocabulary, and key quotes will help you stay organized. Or, you may choose to write summaries at the top of each page and the definitions of terms in the margins. Whatever you decide, remember these notes are for you, so you want to keep them in a way that will make you most likely to use them.
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