How to annotate: 5 strategies for success


Knowing how to annotate can benefit your learning experience, whether for work or pleasure. Learn how to do it effectively with this five-step guide.

How to annotate: highlighter pens

Have you ever written inside of a book?

It can feel a little mischievous to write on the pages of a book, as if we’re breaking some rule. As children, we were taught not to write in our school books or library books, so annotations seemed taboo.

But what if writing in a book was not only OK but also encouraged?

Annotation is a practical and valuable way to engage with text, whether it’s a novel, textbook, or article. When done correctly, annotation can help you engage with the text, identify key points and themes, and even improve your comprehension.

In this article, we’ll discuss what it means to annotate and how it can benefit your learning and comprehension. Get ready to learn how to annotate effectively with this five-step guide.

What is annotation?

How to annotate: sample annotations

Annotating is the act of adding notes, comments, or highlighting to a text as we read through it. These notes can be about anything — our thoughts, reactions, questions — and they can be written in any way we want, from symbols to complete sentences. This form of note-taking can help us remember key information in any text, whether it’s a textbook for school or a novel we enjoy.

Although writing inside books has generally been discouraged and frowned upon in recent decades, the practice of annotation dates back centuries. The word “annote” from Latin “ad” meaning “to” + “notare” meaning “to mark or note,” was first recorded in the mid-15th century.

Annotation has traditionally been used for scholars, researchers, and students to engage with texts. But it’s also widely used by many others, from business professionals to authors like Mark Twain. His humorous marginalia is now collected and exhibited in libraries.

There are many ways to annotate a document, from underlining and highlighting to writing notes in the margins. Regardless of their form, annotations serve the same purpose — to help us better engage with and understand the text.

Why annotate?

Yellow notebook and a yellow pen

Annotating is an active reading strategy that facilitates the critical understanding of information in a text. As we note our thoughts and reflections, we can better engage with the material, identify main points and themes, and even improve our comprehension.

There are many benefits to annotating, whether we’re reading for school or pleasure. Among the most significant are the following:

  • Encourages active reading. Annotation helps us move beyond passive reading and enables us to engage more with the text. Those who skim or scan when reading can benefit significantly, as it’s easier to stay engaged and pay attention when we use annotation and focus on note-taking.
  • It helps the brain process information. Annotating means actively engaging with the text as we read through it. As a result, we can immerse ourselves in learning and engage our information processing system. The brain can encode and store information more effectively for long-term storage by processing information.
  • Annotating helps identify key points. As part of the annotation process, we perform an initial skim, highlighting or underlining the most important information and main points. This allows us to quickly identify and review key points later when we re-read, which is especially helpful when reading a long or complicated text.
  • A well-annotated text improves comprehension. When we thoroughly process and engage with the text, annotation can enhance our comprehension. In addition, social annotation, the practice of sharing and discussing annotations with others, can also increase understanding. Research has found that reading peer annotations helped students confirm their ideas, examine different viewpoints, and better understand course content.
  • It sparks creativity and critical thinking. As we annotate, we have to think about what we’re reading and how it relates to what we already know. This process can help us see the text in new ways and use annotations to make connections we may not have otherwise made. This can lead to more creative and critical thinking about the content.
  • Annotation encourages further exploration. As we read, we may have questions about the text. Taking notes opens a dialogue with the text and encourages further learning. Research shows that annotation can lead to increased engagement and thus increased performance. In one study, student engagement and performance on equation- or procedural-based questions improved when instructors and students shared homework annotations on tablets.

How to annotate in 5 easy steps

Different colors of markers

Knowing how to annotate is a valuable skill for anyone, whether you’re a student, professional, or lifelong self-learner. If you’d like to use annotation to discover and recall key information from your reading, here are a handful of steps to get started.

1. Choose your annotation tools

The first step is to choose your annotation tools. The tools that you choose will depend on the format of your text. If you’re annotating the pages of a book or printed text on a piece of paper, you will need different tools than if you’re annotating an electronic document on a computer or tablet.

Some standard annotation tools for paper texts include:

  • Pens and pencils
  • Highlighters in different colors
  • Sticky notes, tabs, or Post-it Notes

If you’re using a physical book, choose materials that won’t damage the pages. This means avoiding pens and markers with bleed-through ink and opting for pencils instead. Highlighters are also a good option, as long as they don’t bleed through the pages.

For electronic texts, you can use digital versions of many of the same tools as you would for paper texts. However, some annotation-specific tools may come in handy. These include:

  • A digital pen or stylus
  • Note-taking software or apps like Evernote or Diigo
  • A bookmarking tool like Pocket

If you’re reading on a Kindle or other e-reader, you may be limited in the tools you can use. Check your device’s documentation to see what options are available. No matter what format you’re using, choosing tools you’re comfortable with is key. This will make annotation more enjoyable and effective.

2. Select an annotation strategy

Now that you’ve selected tools, it’s time to choose an annotation strategy. There are many ways to annotate, so experiment to find what works best for you. There are several common annotation strategies to try:

  • Descriptive: This strategy aims to summarize the most important points of the text. Briefly paraphrase the main points and state the essential information in your annotations. The exact format is flexible to your preferences. For example, you may link topics with their chapter titles or page numbers to make it easier to reference them, or write a brief summary of each section.
  • Evaluative: This version of annotation encourages critical thinking. In addition to summarizing the text, you’ll analyze the work using this method. Evaluate the author’s qualifications, the accuracy of the information, and any blatant bias in the text. In addition, you should also assess the research source’s relevance to your overall research purpose and how it compares with others on your topic.
  • Informative: This method is similar to evaluation but focuses on the author’s point of view rather than your own. In your summary of the source, you will take a neutral stance rather than express personal feelings about its relevance or quality. Provide only the facts the author provides, noting their main points, arguments, proof, and conclusions.
  • Combination: This is the most common form of annotation that uses a combination of two or more of the systems above. You can choose which elements of the other methods are most beneficial for your purposes. Take note of anything in the text that is new to you, such as unfamiliar words, concepts, places, or people. You could also highlight key information that confirms ideas or fills gaps in your understanding.

Once you choose a strategy that fits your reading intent, you’re ready to start annotating.

3. Scan the text

Armed with your tools and strategy, you’re ready to annotate For your first read, you will simply scan the text. During this initial read-through, there are a few key things to look for:

  • Title, headings, and subheadings. These will help you identify the topic and main ideas you’ll focus on when you complete a close read.
  • Author or publisher attribution. This is the first step in analyzing the research source and evaluating reliability.
  • The abstract, and words and phrases in bold or italics. Further clues about the intended audience and purpose of the text can be revealed in these details.

As you scan, note anything that confuses you or doesn’t make sense. When you do a close reading, you’ll want to pay attention to these areas.

4. Skim for major ideas

Two notebooks and a pencil

After a quick scan of the text, it’s time for a closer look. Read the text again, focusing on the bigger picture to identify the author’s main points. This step doesn’t include close reading of the text, but you’ll want to take a little more time and skim the text more closely than in your initial scan.

During this read-through, your goal is to discover the thesis or central argument of the text. Take some time to note the format of the text, how the information is structured, and how the author supports their claims. Underline or highlight the major ideas of each section as you skim. Lastly, paraphrase the article in your own words near the header or at the end of the text.

5. Complete a close read

Once you understand the main points, you’re ready to do a close reading. This is where you’ll finally slow down, focus on the details, and do some note-taking.

Start at the beginning and slowly re-read the text. Keep your annotation strategy in mind as you read. Knowing whether you want to take a descriptive approach, use the evaluative method, or try another strategy will help you look for the areas you should annotate.

Whichever strategy you use, there are a few helpful things to keep in mind:

  • Be consistent with how you mark the text. Pick one color and use it throughout the text, or assign specific colors to specific points. For instance, yellow for key points, green for supporting information, red for questions, etc. Being consistent will ensure you can understand your annotations when you review them later.
  • Include a key or legend. If you use symbols — stars, arrows, question marks, or underlining — in your note-taking, it’s helpful to create a key. It can be a simple list or chart; just explain what each marking means. For example, a star could mean further research is required while an underline indicates an important point. A key will help you (or any peers reading your annotations) identify and access relevant content.
  • Don’t be afraid to use marginalia. If something confuses you, make a note of it. If you disagree with the author, jot down why. The insights found in marginalia are helpful in many ways, whether they encourage you to further research or offer your peers a different perspective.
  • Avoid over- or under-annotating. It can be tempting to highlight everything as you read, but this isn’t helpful and can make it challenging to identify the most important information. Similarly, if you don’t annotate enough, you might miss important details. Try to find a happy medium so you’re not overwhelmed when reviewing your annotations later.

Adding annotations to a text is an individual process, so there’s no right or wrong way. However, you can use these tips to maximize your annotations and ensure they’re helpful.

Enhance your learning with effective annotation

Whether reading for leisure or learning, knowing how to annotate can benefit your experience. Using annotations effectively improves your understanding of a text and enhances your memory and comprehension. Annotating allows you to take a more active role in your self-learning so you’re not just passively reading but critically engaging with the material.

If you’re new to annotation, start small. Pick one article or chapter and experiment with different annotation strategies. As you become more comfortable, you can try different approaches and find the one(s) that work best for you. With time and practice, annotating will become second nature — and you’ll be able to reap all the benefits of this powerful learning tool.


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