school · White Girl Guides

How to Annotate Literature

Many times language and literature classes require students to annotate the books that are given to them, but in many cases tips and advice on how to do so is lacking. I will be sharing my personal strategy for efficient and successful annotating that will not only help your understanding of the text but also gain the love of your teachers!

The tips have been divided into 5 components, each with their own explanation.

Sticky Tabs are Your Best Friend

I don’t know how I would manage to annotate without my sticky tabs. They help me organize and navigate the book before the reading, remind me what to look for while i’m going through the text and help me find whatever I may need once I get to further analysis for the class.

Create a key for your tabs, personally I use five colors each having a few specific purposes based on where I place them in the book. Most stickies are accompanied by a specific note that will remind me of what I wanted to point out, these stick out of the right margin.

Pink- Anything to do with characters, be it development or certain traits to remember. It can also be used for when you have questions about character related aspects of the text.
Orange- Refers to setting, in plays it is also applicable for stage directions.
Yellow- Is used for literary devices and use of language (tone, diction, patterns) and syntax, if there is a particular word the author used or a structure you want to take note of, this is the color to use.
Green- Applicable to any important plot events, notable scenes or things that you think will be significant later in the story.
Blue- Themes and context of said ideas, anything to do with time, place and space in which the text takes place. It can also relate to how your context (a student reading a book for a literature course) impacts your perception of the text.

These are the things teachers usually look out for and it is certainly useful in any kind of further task!

The top and bottom margins can be used to divide the book in to sections, such as chapters or scenes, mark the most important pages and to also highlight text to text connections. These colors you can pick yourself!

I do not recommend having more than 5 sticky tabs per page, otherwise it gets too crowded and they lose their purpose! (but you will still need to buy a lot).

Don’t Overdo it With the Highlighter

Find one color highlighter that you like the most and use it to mark explicit words or phrases that catch your attention, you can also use them in correlation with you sticky tabs!

I prefer to use a yellow highlighter because it seems to bleed the least, and I usually use it in relation to the the yellow and blue tabs because those are the ones that relate to the most detailed and minute parts of the text. Once again you can find your own preference! But don’t overdo it, otherwise, like the tabs, the highlighter will lose its function to highlight important points.

Have a Conversation With the Author

This is one of the first tips that my high school teacher gave me and it’s really one of the most important ones to remember. And I know, it may sound kinda silly, but I find that it really helps me in developing my ideas and remembering exactly how I felt about a certain aspect of part of the text.

Whether the text is fiction of non fiction, anything in between, you can always do these few things:

Ask questions- As if you were going to get an answer, ask questions, write them down and write down as many as you want. Writing things down helps people remember so then it is more likely that in a class discussion you will be able to recall your queries or wonders.
If you don’t like something, or you’re surprised by something, write it down! Use exclamation marks, use words that you would use in a regular conversation. I always write ‘WOW!!’ or ‘OMG’ when i’m especially impressed, and having such vocal- well written vocally- emotions will bring you closer to the subject of the text.
Talk to the characters as well, if you are questioning a character’s actions ask them and provide an explanation as to why you speculate they may have acted a certain way. Not only does that further contribute to your involvement (also making things more entertaining) but it also deepens your thought!

What i’m trying to say is write down anything that comes to mind, your first response is your true response, and it is a valuable addition to your notes! And if you want to write a whole essay in between the lines… Actually, i’ll come back to that later!

Pens, not Pencils

I used to make notes completely in pencil but my approach changed when I realized that overtime the pencil would rub off and get illegible. I think it was because I used my book so much, but having switched to pen I realized that it helps me in quite a few other things as well.
The good thing about pen is that you can’t erase it and let’s say you started writing down a note, scan down the page and realize what you are taking a note of is completely wrong. That’s ok! That’s actually really good! Don’t scribble out what you just wrote down, but instead continue and explain why you may have thought a certain way and what your understanding is now. That relates really closely to the previous note.

Evidently pen also appears darker on the page, then there’s no possibility of it ever disappearing. It also won’t smudge or bleed as long as it’s ballpoint! That’s a good thing when drawing arrows between lines, underlining in addition to your highlights and circling/boxing whatever you deem necessary.

Time, Effort and Commitment

It’s clear that this post took me a while to make, and it took me a while to develop this system with all of the things that I have considered. So it must be self evident that using this type of annotation won’t be quick. It might get tiring at some times, and for me it really does, but at the end I find that it always pays off! You have to stay committed to this technique, you have to put in the same amount of effort for every page, which means you need time. So here are a few final general tips I will leave you with.
Don’t procrastinate! As goes for any task, and this one more than any, don’t waste time getting to it! I advice you check how many pages you have in total and make sure that you do a certain amount per day (usually 5-10 pages a day is good!)


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