Annotating while reading – yay or nay?

As an English teacher, I am constantly telling my students to “annotate in the margins” for anything and everything that we read. But in my personal reading life, that habit does not carry over.

When I was a student, my high school reading materials were plastered with highlighted phrases, sticky notes, tabs, and scribbles. Every page was marked to the max. In college, I highlighted in my textbooks and made notes on stickies that might help me later. But all these annotations have been for purely academic reading purposes.

I haven’t fully accepted writing in books and don’t think I ever will if it isn’t a book I am going to teach to students. But annotated books in the past has taught me a few things about reading critically.

Save the parts that stand out to you. I cannot express how many times I have come across a portion of a story that hit home. If I didn’t make a note of it somewhere, I felt myself frantically trying to look for it down the road. I like to write down the quotes in a notebook so that I can look back at them later and inspire my reading and writing.

Learn vocabulary! As a student, I was constantly defining words and phrases that I was unsure of. As an adult, I find it even more important because when I learn a new word (also written down or highlighted on my kindle) I am only increasing my abilities as a writer. Plus, these words are written in context and it might just make us aware of a scene differently.

Read with a critical eye. If your goal is to be a writer, reading and marking your books might be very important for your ability to grow. Mark and indicate interesting use of punctuation, or phrases that stood out to you, scenes that immersed you in them. The later is my personal favorite. When I come across a scene that is particularly powerful, I will reread it and try to look at HOW the author painted the picture with their words.

Want to try annotating?

If you want to try annotating, here are a few tips and tricks I have used in the past! Just like anything that deals with reading or writing, personalize this to make it work for you. Practice strategies and ideas that stand out to you and skip the ones that don’t. Otherwise, you are spending time doing something that may or may not benefit you in the future. With that, let’s begin!

Highlighters, Pencils, Pens –> Whatever your weapon of choice, these will be what you use to mark and indicate passages. I usually differ on what gets used depending on the type of reading I am doing: textbooks = highlighter and pencil, novels = pencil or pen, etc. I know what works for me and what doesn’t so this might be something to experiment with.

Sticky notes and Tabs –> I use these a ridiculous amount when marking up books. I like it because if I want to take them out and throw them away my book will look brand new. Sticky notes allow me to write my thoughts without being super cramped in the tiny margins. Tabs help me flip to something quickly because I know what I am looking for.

Consider color coordinating. –> When I annotate for different types of things (theme, hero’s journey, punctuation, important phrases, etc.) it can be helpful for me to color coordinate my tabs, stickies, or highlighting so that I can fixate on just one color. It is one method of organizing the madness that might result in my annotations.

Write mini-summaries. –> One of the best strategies I learned for annotating while reading fiction and nonfiction (also a strategy I teach my students) is to write mini summaries. These summaries can go at the end of chapters, or sections, or paragraphs to help clarify what it was that you read. This way, when you are flipping back through you can quickly recall the story or text to your mind.

Don’t overdo it. –> Yes, annotating books has benefits for many reasons but you can overdo it. If you have filled the margins with notes, you might be taking away from the appeal and natural beauty of the story or text you are reading. It can become distracting and unhelpful. Instead, think about what is most important and what you will actually come back and look at in the future.


Are you an annotator? What kinds of things do you annotate for? What kind of texts do you annotate?

If you are not an annotator, do you think this might be something you try in the future?

Let me know in the comments below or shoot me a message!


Happy reading!

2 thoughts on “Annotating while reading – yay or nay?

  1. I really enjoyed this, the way you write is amazing! Love how you’re teaching, that’s so interesting. I’m studying to be a teacher in the design and technology department myself.

    As for annotating, I’ve tried in the past but I just find it so messy and I just don’t enjoy it. That’s partially why I started a blog because if I can’t keep my thoughts and opinions in my books, then I’ll have a place where I can look at all my bookish thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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