How to Annotate for Active Reading

Please Write in Your Books!

by Janice Campbell

Have you ever been told not to write in a book? Most people have, and doing so can feel subversive. However, annotating (taking notes in the books you read) is an interactive way to increase understanding and enjoy a work more deeply than if you simply skim through without thinking. Here are a few ideas for taking helpful notes as you read.

Janice Campbell's annotated Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Annotated pages in my Norton Anthology.


A book reads the better, which is our own, and has been so long known to us, that we know the topography of its blots and dog’s-ears, and can trace the dirt in it to having read it at tea with buttered muffins, or over a pipe . . . 

—Charles Lamb, from an 1802 letter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Annotating a book helps you understand and enjoy it more deeply than if you simply read without thinking. If you have a choice, use a good paperback with decent margins for studying complex works. That will give you room for notes and you won’t feel quite so bad about ignoring the librarian’s disapproving gaze.

How to Annotate for Active Reading

Use a pencil for writing in your books, as it does not show through or distract from the story, and it can be erased if necessary. In college, I made notes with a pen, but discovered that most ballpoint inks bled through thin pages and were not acid free. If you really want to use a pen, choose something like the Micron Pigma pens that are acid free, especially if your book is old or valuable.

You may annotate in margins, on the inside of book covers, or on the blank pages at the front and back of your text. Use an index card or piece of paper if you are using a library book (not nearly as much fun). There are circumstances in which highlighting can be appropriate, but just realize that this will ruin the book for anyone else (especially visual learners), and you may find that you cannot read it again without distraction.

Annotate Within the Text

    • Draw a vertical line beside significant lines or paragraphs you would like to remember.
Pencil Annotations in Homer's Odyssey.

Annotations from the first page of Homer’s Odyssey.

  • Underline important phrases or ideas.
  • Draw a star beside any section you would like to memorize.
  • Box words or short phrases that indicate a theme or thread you are following through the story (see “homecoming” in the Homer illustration).
  • Use an arrow symbol or > to point to book titles or web addresses you would like to look up later.
  • Context: If the story or poem mentions a person, a piece of art, literature, or music, or a historic event, make a note in the margin and look up the item. Many resources can be found through a simple Internet search. Just type in the artist or composition name, and look at website results for events, image results for art, and video results for compositions.
  • Questions: If you have a question about something in the text, write it in the margin or on a sticky note. Writing it down will help you recognize the answer if it later appears in the text. If it does not appear, the written question will remind you to do a bit more research.

Inside the Covers

  • Character List: For full-length novels, use the blank pages at the front and back of the book to list each of the characters in the order in which they appear. Include the page number and a brief note about the character’s role in the plot or any distinguishing characteristics. This can be a lifesaver when reading novelists such as Dickens or Tolstoy, with dozens of characters over hundreds of pages.
  • Timeline: List each significant event in the story in the order that it happens. If you are in the flow of a story, do not feel that you must interrupt it. Just just put a sticky note next to the event and add it to the list at the end of the reading period.

Word Definitions

As you read, keep an index card or piece of paper tucked into the back of the book, or write on the blank end pages. Write down words you do not know, look them up, and write down the definition. If you understand the basic meaning from the context, do not interrupt the flow of the story — just look up the word later.

What if you don’t own the book?

Annotating is a bit more difficult when you don’t own the book, but it can be done in a couple of ways. The traditional way would be to copy particularly meaningful or interesting quotes in a commonplace book. You can do so as straight text, or as visual notes written in a way that helps you remember them (my favorite way to do it).
A modern shortcut would be to take photos or make photocopies of pages with significant passages; then print them out and annotate on the printed copy. This is less beneficial than copying the passage or taking notes on it, but better than nothing.
Reading actively helps you learn and remember. I hope you enjoy doing it!


Did you like that quote from Charles Lamb at the top of the page? You can read a few of Lamb’s stories and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poems here on our site.

And in this reading list from 1910, there are a few candidates for practicing the skill of annotation.

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