The Art of Annotation


Writing in books with the right methods and intentions can be an analytical practice, commonly known as annotation. To annotate a book is essentially to personalize it; highlighting favorite lines and sections, and adding commentary, allowing you to make the book your own. Annotation may seem like a tedious chore, but there are many reasons to try it. Annotating transforms a book, like combining literature with a diary, letting you leave your personal mark on something timeless, creating something new.

Annotation requires supplies that allow you to customize your novel. The backbone of this process is the book you choose to annotate. I recommend annotating an older, used book, instead of a new copy. Don’t use a book that belongs to someone else. Your book can be one you haven’t read, but annotating a favorite allows you to further explore a story you love. Genre doesn’t matter, but annotating a nonfiction book would be slightly different, as you would be focusing more on the acquisition of information than the analysis and commentary of a story. It is important to remember that what you read should be up to you. Annotating a book is a long process, so choose a book you are excited to read. Next, a pen. My personal favorites are black Papermate InkJoy gel pens, but anything will do. If you prefer to annotate with just a pen, you absolutely can, but I like to write notes and mark sections in pen, and highlight specific quotes. Color-coding with highlighter is popular, but I just use yellow. Another popular tool with varied purposes is sticky tabs. I’m currently annotating Anna Karenina, and I used tabs to mark each of the eight parts of the novel. Tabs can be used to mark favorite chapters or passages, or even each annotated page, which I initially tried, but stopped because it required too many. Tabs are often used to color-code, to connect a color to a specific emotion, relationship, idea, or theme. Annotation supplies are completely up to you, and the process can be as simplistic or complex as you want.

The actual process of annotation is mostly personal preference. There isn’t a set of rules on what to highlight, comment on, or underline, but I’ll share a few common methods. I begin by highlighting a quote that I like, and then structure my comments around the quotes I chose to highlight. The comments you write in the margins or between paragraphs can be about virtually anything. I tend to relate mine to the quote I highlighted, but I also write any questions or random thoughts, word definitions, parallels, character development, and occasionally doodles. One common method that I don’t personally use is a key, which is more recommended if you are color coding with your highlighters or tabs. The key allows distinction between the colors used, and what each one means, and it is normally written on a mostly empty page at the beginning of the book, or a blank sheet of paper inserted into the book. Try to remain consistent throughout the process, develop a system of annotating, and try to stick with it. If you do want to change something, you absolutely can, but make sure you apply your changes throughout the entire book, if possible. The most important part of the process is doing what works for you.

Writing in books has always been widely regarded as destructive and unwise, but the practice of annotation proves that otherwise. Annotating a book gives you the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a novel, and allows you to spend more time analyzing, dissecting, and questioning a novel than you would by just reading it.