What is an annotation?

Annotations are clear legible notes you take in the margins of the book so that when you flip through the pages you can find quotations, images, ideas, character descriptions, and key events (annotations can also include underlining passages).

• We do this because it makes understanding and writing about the novel much easier.
• The object is to turn your copy of the text into a well-marked guidebook you can use to make talking about and writing it easier.
• Avoid using highlighters: use written notes and symbols instead (please see the attached sample page of annotations).
• Create a list of notes on the blank pages at the end of the book or in your notebook, with page references to help you find them.
• Especially try to track repeated ideas, repeated types of events, as well as significant words and events.
o You will find that taking annotations and notes on the side will help save time when you have to write about the book at the end of the summer because you will be able to find passages more easily.
o Re-read segments of the text as you go forward and perfect your system of notes.

Types of annotation:
o In your pages install cross-references to similar events and themes as you notice them occurring.
o In your marginal notes use brackets to show where segments you have labeled start and stop.
o Also use underlining: many people use color coding for theme and issues and to record particularly interesting language.
o Use symbols as well as words.
• In addition to written annotations, use easily drawn symbols such as stars, asterisks, daggers, moons, arrows and eyes.
• Any easily drawn small symbol can be helpful, but avoid meaningless drawings in the margins; these will muddy your annotation and confuse your efforts to find key passages and evidence.
• If your list of symbols becomes too complex or less than obvious, make a key to the symbols you use in the back of the book.
• Note first descriptions of characters, and track changes in characters and reintroductions of long-missing characters.
o Name and locate specific events, especially big events such as deaths of characters, fights, arguments, discussions, disasters, beginnings of conflicts, failures, successes and any other event that stands out.
• Distinguish between useful notes and mere reactions.
o Keep reactive notes to a minimum: notes like “wow” or “I don’t like this” or “cool” or “he’s creepy.” Reactive notes are not as helpful as analytical notes.
• Make your notes as useful and functional as possible.
o Try to make notes which will help you find particular events you will need for discussion and for writing about the book later, and which will help focus your thinking about the book.
o Your notes should be able to remind you of what goes on in the text and what makes it meaningful even if you were to pick the book up five years from now and have to say something about it.
o By taking legible, clear notes on almost every page, you will begin the process of truly understanding the book even before you finish it.


Annotation is a way of making the book your own. If you just blast through a book without taking the time to annotate, the book remains a distant object that always belongs to somebody else. Annotation forces you to slow down and think about what you are reading to the point that some of the book’s thought becomes your own thought. The result is that when you finish the last page, you own the book. The point is for you to make a careful enough diagnosis of what’s going on in each passage to allow you to create a sensible short label for that passage. This act strengthens your understanding of the passage and its relation to other passages you have already read. The act of writing a whole series of intelligent comments deepens your understanding of the book as a whole and begins to allow you to accumulate understanding and knowledge about the book as you read it.

When you finish the book, you will have to write about it and talk about it. Without annotation you often find yourself at the book’s ending with few clues as to how and why the ending takes the shape it takes—how the characters wound up in the position they arrive at; or why the book’s events point towards that conclusion—your understanding of the book remains impoverished and almost requires a second reading. When you read sophisticated literature, especially as a student, you aren’t looking for the big bang at the end of the story. Instead you are looking at a slowly developing process that takes the book’s characters through a series of particular experiences and developments. That process—the final meaning and shape of the novel—does not occur in the last pages or the last chapter of the novel; instead, the novel’s meaning accumulates slowly from its first page, sentence, and even word. [Set yourself the goal for instance of understanding everything on the book’s first page and in the first chapter by the time you finish reading; annotations will let you do that.] Your annotations let you chart that slow growth as you first pass through the book, saving you time and effort even while slowing down your initial reading.

Good annotations give you a road-map through the book. Imagine an explorer encountering complex terrain for the very first time. No good explorer would discover a mountain range, or a new river, or a previously unknown city without recording the discovery in her diaries and sketch maps; otherwise her exploration would be useless and the same explorer would have to take the same journey all over again to find the places that she had already explored. With annotations you give yourself such a map and you take important steps towards mastering and owning the new, previously unknown regions through which you have passed.


• The reading we give you is only as meaningful to you as you allow it to be.
• You have to meet the reading half-way to get anything out of it: that means you have to put in a fragment of the effort reading the book as the author put into writing it.
• Don’t read passively: read actively, with a pencil or a pen in hand and a notebook ready.
• When you read, turn off the television, turn off the sound system, ignore the phone and PC and the text messages: let the writer’s words dominate your thinking and your world for a short time, and record the impressions the writer’s words make on you in the book’s margins, and in a note book.


Have fun reading!

If you have questions, please contact anyone of us:

Kristin Nelson (Composition, Intermediate Composition)
Rosemary Delia (Literature)
Katie Ferrell (Advanced English)
Nina LaCour (Advanced English)
Michael Ditmore (Advanced English)