A little secret from yours truly: I LOVE to annotate books. Highlighting, tabbing, writing with the darkest black pen you can think of.. I do it all. Without any shame. I know it will make some of you cringe, but I love the look of a well-annotated book.
Annotating books is a very lawless activity, so it can be hard to know how to get started. In this post I’m going to explain my personal methods and give you tips on how to get started. But remember: annotating books is super personal and it could be that my methods do not work for you AT ALL. Experiment! Try different things! It’s YOUR book and it has to work for YOUR NEEDS.
Why do you Annotate Books?
There are three reasons why I personally like to annotate books.
- It deepens my understanding of the book. Annotating helps me understand certain aspects of the book I wouldn’t otherwise notice. I pick up on patterns, writing choices and genre-specific aspects. It helps me learn about the book I’m reading and deepens my understanding of the work. I look at it with a more critical eye.
- It helps me remember. I read a lot of books. Like, a lot. This year I’ve read twelve and we’re not even halfway through February. Annotating helps me remember big moments and it’s easier to flick through and reread my favorite parts because I’ve marked them! I also remember how I’ve felt while reading a specific book: when I reread it five years later I might feel completely different about the work because I’ve grown and matured. That’s cool to see!
- It helps when I’m reviewing books. This isn’t going to apply to everyone, but as someone who tries to be a *ahem* serious book reviewer *twirls mustache* annotating can help me with the quality of my review. I will usually write review notes in the margins and use a specific ‘review’ highlighter colour, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.
What I use for Annotating Books
When I annotate, I use a few different products. Almost all of these are cheap and can be found at the Dollar store.
- Tabs. Or page flags, depending on where you are in the world. And yes, I color-coördinate mine. I’ll get to that in second. Also, I prefer the plastic-y ones that are a little see through over the paper ones.
- A few different highlighters. I like the Stabilo ones but anything will do.
- A pen. I know, groundbreaking. But like, a good pen that you like writing with and that dries somewhat quickly. I like using colored pens because if I reread a book, I can use a different colored pen to keep my notes separate. I like these Muji pens.
Let’s Get Onto the Fun Part: Annotating
The way I annotate from book to book can differ a lot. Have I reread it before? What is the genre? Am I reviewing it or not? What is the goal with my annotations? But as you do it more often, you’ll realize what works for you based on the type of book. Also: I honestly believer there are different types of annotators. Some like to annotate for their emotions (this made me happy, this made me gasp, this made me sad) and some people, like me, like to focus more on the writing style, character building and other intentional decisions the author and editor might have made. One annotator is not better than the other, they’re just different.
Tip: don’t get stuck in your ways when it comes to annotating. See it as a fluid thing: it differs from book to book and from genre to genre. Annotating books is about serving you, not about aesthetics or to serve others.
Usually, regardless of genre, I will at least annotate the following things: plot device, character development, important character introduced, plot development, red herrings, and I have a color for generic ‘review notes’ for things that I want to add in my video- or written review. And when I day annotating, I will assign a different tab color to each of those things and underline the sentence that the specific tab will be referencing to.
Tip: If you’re keeping track of a lot of different things, create a color key on an empty page at the front of the book with one color of each page flag and what they mean.
My annotating tips for newbies
I use rules VERY loosely here, because again, annotating is a very lawless activity and it different from book to book.
- Write out your thoughts in the margins. One of the most common questions I get asked is what I write in the margins when I annotate, and the answer is really simple: whatever I’m thinking. It can be something as simple as ‘this is funny’ or ‘love this witty banter’. Sometimes it’s more profound, but not always. And I like it this way.
- Don’t be afraid to ‘ruin’ your books. I guess if you’re scared, you can always start with just sticky tabs or pencil, but I always loved making my books my own. Just imagine that if in a hundred years, someone finds your annotated book on a whim and gets a little glimpse into your life. I find that beautiful.
- Annotating becomes easier the more you do it. This is so true. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get some epiphany after annotating a book or two. At the beginning, it can be a muscle you need to train a bit.
- Don’t be afraid to pull out SparkNotes. Seriously, especially if you’re annotating for class or just a reading crusty dusty classic for fun. Sometimes it can be hard to understand the work if you don’t have anyone to discuss it with in real time, getting some insights on the themes, influence of the work and character depth can really help you while reading that book, and you can then work those into your annotations!
- Just try it out. It’s easiest to start annotating a book you’ve already read. You can highlight your favorite passages or sentences, stick a tab in