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How to Annotate

How to Annotate a Book - English Composition Annotation Strategies

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 read. That helps you 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 quickly, or even look up the CliffsNotes to save time. But taking the time to really engage with the text will help you in the long run.

When it comes to reading, there's no better way to stay focused than through the simple process of taking notes, as defined below.

What Does It Mean to Annotate?

What is annotation? So what is the purpose of this annotation practice? How to annotate a book properly? How do you annotate if you've never done it before? Let's break it down, starting from the definition.

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

Why annotate?

Annotations serve two corresponding main goals.

With the first, you keep a record of what you're reading to make it easy to find key ideas, phrases, or data later. This is especially important if you're working on a large research project since you'll be reading dozens or hundreds of books, articles, and other texts. Taking notes directly on the source will simplify the writing process 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 and forget it when you put down the book. Annotating is a way for you to fight that forgetfulness by engaging with the text. You'll be forming opinions and asking questions as you read. That 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 a conversation. The author is telling you a story or presenting an argument, and your annotation is the record of your response. Maybe you thought a particular image was especially powerful? Or 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 and a descriptive outline of that. However, you don't want to just jot down whatever comes into your head. Instead, your model for annotating should form a systematic analysis of the text that will help you understand the work.

Note. Most of the suggestions below focus on reading and annotating in the language arts. But, many can also be used when reading scientific texts such as textbooks or journal articles.


You may not want to spend too much time recapping what you've read. But, writing a short summary at the end of each chapter or section can help you remember important facts or details. If you're reading a novel or play, a short two- or three- sentence summary can help you process what you've read. They 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.

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, you compare texts if you want to see the differences in sampling methods or noting how two scientists choose to approach 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. Make sure to note passages where you see these ideas articulated.
  • Text-to-self
    How do you react personally to the text? It's 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 future 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. 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 described with terms you're not familiar with.

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 the author chose to write a scene a specific way or whether a historian is misinterpreting a primary text. These questions will help with your understanding of the work and can also make for good topics to discuss in class.

Keeping track of your questions through annotation is especially useful for scientific texts. Let's assume you are unsure about experimental methods or previous works not discussed in detail in the text. It can be a good idea to circle or underline words and technical terms you don't know. That way, you can look them up immediately or later when you have more time.

Part of the process of academic readings is asking questions and engaging with other people about what you've read. Don't hesitate to mark a passage you don't understand.

Make predictions

If you're reading a novel or play, or a written text of any kind, really, 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 guess correctly 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 from what you would have expected.

Note key passages and terms

All the previous suggestions for annotations were for general reading assignments, but your annotations may focus on a particular topic. For example, if you're working on a research project, you may note passages in the text that could be useful in your paper. That would be important quotes, data, or ideas. Doing this type of annotation as you go will save you a lot of time and trouble 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.

Create a System

Annotating works best when you create a system that you use regularly. Everybody reads 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 as you annotate. That may work true if the system of 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. Highlighting is a good way to keep your mind focused on certain parts!

Whatever you decide, remember these notes are for you, so you want to keep them in a way that will be clear and helpful for you.

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