How to Annotate a Book: What to Look For and How to Take Notes Image

Although many book lovers might cringe at the thought of writing in the crisp, clean pages of one of their cherished books, annotating a text can actually help to enrich the reading experience.

But before you get started, it’s helpful to know what kind of elements you should be looking for in a text, what you should include in your notes, and how you should complete your annotations for the best results.

What Does it Mean to Annotate Something?

To annotate something means to add notes, which deliver as commentary or explanation of the subject at hand. You can annotate books (both fiction and nonfiction), poems, articles, and even images. Such notes are usually found in the margins of a text.

Annotations can be added to note observations, highlight a reader’s favorite passage, insert commentary or analysis, or to raise questions that the reader would like to revisit. By annotating a book, readers examine the text on a deeper level, since they slow down and take the time to notice where they might have questions, identify symbols, or form opinions.

How Do You Annotate a Text Effectively?

If you’re not quite sure what you should be looking for when annotating a book, here are a few ideas to get you started in the right direction.

What to Look For

Get your highlighter and pen ready to for this treasure hunt through your book.


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Image by TeroVesalainen from Pixabay

Jot down any questions that come to mind as you read. These could range from surface level (like, “What does the author mean here?”) to deep, reflective questions (like, “What does this say about society today?”)

Your questions can serve as reminders for parts you didn’t understand and want to revisit, or as discussion questions for your book club, work team, or just your own personal journal.

Recurring Themes or Symbols

If you notice recurring symbols throughout a text, underline or highlight them, even if you’re not quite sure what they mean yet. This will help you to make important connections and identify larger themes as you continue reading.

Again, even if you aren’t quite sure what these themes or symbols mean, at least you’ll have notes to remind you of what you need to research.

Your Favorite Quotes or Passages

Highlight or underline any quotes that stick with you, perhaps because you find them inspirational, or because you think they represent a turning point in the plot.

Making note of these passages will help you to find them again quickly and easily. Plus, simply making notes or highlighting can actually help you to better remember those key lines.

Unfamiliar Words

Circle or highlight any words you don’t recognize so that you can easily find them and look them up later. One little word might not seem like much, but it could make a huge difference in how you understand the main idea of a passage.

Connections to Other Texts

Ever get a sudden feeling of déjà vu while reading a book? Well, that might not be a coincidence! If a passage reminds you of another book, film, or event, take note. It might be an intentional allusion, designed to make readers draw parallels or make comparisons, which could help you to predict the outcome or identify the overarching theme of the story.

Connections to the Real World

Of course, you should also be on the lookout for any possible connections to the real world. The author might be trying to make a reference to past or current political events, and picking up on this can definitely help you to understand their intended message.

How to Annotate a Book

Here are several efficient ways you can annotate your book (but don’t let this list limit you—if you have your own creative ideas, feel free to use whatever works for you!)

1. Highlight

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Image by Hans from Pixabay

If you own the book, or if your library/rental service allows you to mark the text, highlighting can be a great and neat way to annotate a book.

You can color code your annotations, and choose to either make additional notes in the margins, or keep a separate notebook with your notes and corresponding page number for each highlighted section.

You can also just highlight passages you like or want to come back to, without making additional notes. It’s completely up to you!

2. Take Notes in the Margins

You can use the margins of your book to write questions or enter brief notes about the passages you’re reading. If you need to return the book at some point, you might want to consider using a pencil so you can erase your markings later, if necessary.

Circle, underline, or comment on any key symbols that you come across. Again, you can always keep a separate notebook for your longer or more detailed entries.

3. Create a Key with Symbols

If you don’t feel like cluttering your margins with comments, you can also develop your own key and use symbols to indicate certain notes, perhaps for symbols, allusions, imagery, or key turning points.

In this way, you can minimize the markings that you make in the text and keep a separate set of notes that elaborate on the symbols you’ve used.

4. Use Sticky Tabs

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Sticky tabs (especially when they are color-coded) are another great way to annotate a book without actually marking up or highlighting the pages.

This method is ideal if you are borrowing a book from the library or renting it from a used textbook dealer that doesn’t want you to write in the actual book.

You can choose to make an orange tab signify key symbols, for example, then write the page number on a separate sheet of paper with your notes or commentary about that symbol.

What Do You Annotate in a Fiction Book?

Annotating a fiction book isn’t that different from annotating a nonfiction book. What might change is the kind of things you are looking for, but that will also depend a lot on the purpose behind your annotations.

For example, are you annotating to further your own comprehension? Or because your professor requires you to annotate the text, identifying symbols, turning points, etc.?

With both fiction and nonfiction works, you might ask thoughtful questions, identify parts you don’t understand, or highlight any passages that stand out to you and add notes with your own thoughts and connections.

With fiction specifically, you might annotate other elements that aren’t usually found in nonfiction writing, like symbols, themes, imagery, motifs, turning points, and other elements of the plot.

Be an Active Reader

Annotating a book can help make you a more active reader and give you a more fulfilling reading experience. Whether you’re working with fiction or nonfiction, you’ll be forced to slow down and take note of important elements that you might otherwise have missed.

And if you want to your note-taking game, be sure to check out our list of 6 tips for taking better notes so you can make even more efficient annotations.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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