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What Are Good Things to Annotate in a Book?

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Annotation is the process of adding notes to comment or explain the text of what you are reading. Depending on the type of book, an annotation can be simple or complex. 

Anything that adds to your interest or understanding of what you are reading is helpful. Some people use annotation as a study tool, while others are responding to phrases, characters, or other elements. Annotation can be like having a conversation with the author.

The dictionary says that annotation consists of a note added by way of comment or explanation, but in practice annotation is much more than that. It can be as detailed or as brief as needed. 

6 Kinds of Annotations Found In Books

As you read books of all types, or as you think about what you are reading, many people find it helpful to jot down a running commentary on the characters, thoughts, words, or questions which are related to the text. The action of reading and then writing about what was read, no matter how brief your comments are, is a way of fixing the information in your mind and may also help you identify areas that you want to come back to. These types of annotations are some of the most common ones to be found in practice.

Keywords and key phrases 

Certain words or phrases are marked in order to emphasize what you believe the author is saying. Often the more important concepts appear early in a paragraph, so you might note a phrase or two which encapsulates the meaning of the entire chapter, paragraph, or section. When studying a topic, one of the suggestions is to initially read only the first sentence of every paragraph, and you will be able to grasp the overall meaning of blocks of text.

Depending on the author’s writing style, you might take note of patterns of writing, such as repetition of certain words or phrases. You might also use annotation as a way to identify unusual word choices to express certain ideas. 

Main ideas

Main ideas

What Are Good Things to Annotate in a Book

To take highlighting of keywords or key phrases to a higher level, jot down these concepts in just a word or two. Try to summarize the information as succinctly as possible. This type of annotation can be effective for many types of reading material from history to science to poetry and literature. The more you read, the more you will find quick idea notes to be helpful in linking and summarizing concepts. 

Questions you would ask the author

As you read, this type of annotation can be fun and interesting. Write down questions you might ask the author if you were sitting across from them as you read their works. The questions can be as detailed or as general as you like. You might ask the author about one of the characters in a mystery novel. “Why didn’t you follow up on this clue or that one? You might ask a politician to support their views on climate change. You are the interviewer and you can be in agreement with or opposed to what the author is saying. 

Expand your vocabulary

If you read widely, you may only rarely see a word that is unfamiliar to you, while if you are studying a new field, you may come across new vocabulary more frequently. If you think you know the meaning, jot it down anyway to verify it later. Expanding your vocabulary through conscious effort is a good habit to develop. 

Words that seem incorrectly used in the written text are another annotation to make as you read. These can be spelling or grammar errors, or simply changes in standard usage. Because English grammar is constantly changing and evolving, words can change in meaning over the years. New words are being added to the dictionary every time a new edition is produced. 

Sometimes checking your own understanding of the meaning of a word can change your viewpoint of an idea, character, or activity. If you look up a word and find the definition, it is useful to go back to the annotation and see if knowing the intended meaning changes your opinion of what the author was saying. 

Link thoughts, characters, and themes

You can use notations such as arrows, emojis, and lines to connect themes that relate to each other in the text. Comparing two people in a story or historical passage can be done by a note to “See page xxx” combined with an arrow. An arrow in the margin pointing to a person, place, or thing of interest is an easy way to graphically point out links or draw your own attention. 

Add your own summary

Similar to random words and phrases mentioned earlier, a rephrased and condensed portion of text can add meaning in your own mind, as well pointing out errors to the imaginary author sitting across the table from you. If you were to explain a highlighted section of text to a friend, would your summary increase their understanding or the opposite?

What Is Annotation?

Annotation is the process of adding comments, notes, or graphics to assist in understanding or explaining a book. Annotation can be useful in your own studies, as well as in preparing to teach another person. Annotation can be for light reading or for entertainment as well. 

Why should you annotate?

Annotate to enhance understanding

You can use annotation to enhance your understanding of, recollection of, or reactions to what you are reading. This is an important skill to develop in order to make the most of your study time.

Annotate in scientific literature

Annotation is used in scientific literature to reference other publications the reader may need some awareness of.

Annotate in genre fiction

Annotation may be used by the author/editor in genre fiction to convey tangential plot and setting information to the readers, in the form of footnotes. It can be used to mark favorite passages or highlight critical information, as a reader.

Annotate to improve critical thinking

Annotation is helpful for the development of critical thinking. If you are involved in book clubs or other settings where discussion of a text is occurring, annotation can help you prepare for points that impact your thinking or reaction to the book. 

When should you annotate?

The best time to annotate is while you are reading. Annotation allows you to highlight thoughts and questions as you read the words. Take note of the author’s points. Is there a shift in perspective or message that occurs at a point in the text?

Take your time reading and don’t skim through passages just to locate something to annotate. Mark passages that surprise you, that make you think twice, or make you wonder about the author’s message as you read them.

Take your time reading and don’t skim through passages just to locate something to annotate. Mark passages that surprise you, that make you think twice, or make you wonder about the author’s message as you read them.

What Are Good Things to Annotate in a Book

How should you annotate?

There are numerous ways to annotate a text. If you don’t care about the appearance of the pages, you can use a highlighter over the text. If the margins are wide enough, you can use the space for your annotations with pencil or pen. 

If you don’t want to mark the pages, sticky notes or tabs are useful. Sticky notes also help you to find a passage quickly in the future. If you want to keep a book in pristine condition, and you want to annotate it as well, either get a second copy and mark it as much as you like, or get an ebook version and use one of the e-reader programs that allow you to annotate your electronic books. 

One note of caution when you are annotating: Don’t go overboard and annotate to the point that you are unable to decipher the original text underneath it all. 

Keeping it interesting

Reading for the purpose of annotation ruins the enjoyment of the process. Think of annotation as a way to enhance your enjoyment of books of all types. Over the long term, annotation will help in your knowledge, understanding, and grasp of ideas and concepts, as well as providing a different viewpoint for lighter reading genres.