By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.

Knowing how to annotate text is basically a superpower. It is a skill that you will need for all of your academic experience, regardless of what grade you are in or what major you are in. All you need for this annotation strategy is the basics: a highlighter and writing implement.

If you are new to annotating text, here are 11 annotation strategies to start with.

If you are experienced with commenting on text and just want to get better or faster, this is the place for you.

In this tutorial, I’ll share a simple annotation strategy with just a highlighter and pen that will help you better understand and remember difficult material. Because as you know, the whole purpose of commenting is first and foremost to better understand the text.

This annotation strategy is intended for complicated texts, not easy readings. No need to comment on the simple things. So we’re talking about textbooks, literature, scientific articles, rich short stories, and the like.

Some basics on notes before we begin:

  1. Commenting means taking notes. I hope you know.
  2. You can annotate with technology or paper. One method may be better for certain people, so you need to see what works for you. In the video that accompanies this post, I go through a detailed demonstration of both strategies.
  3. Commenting works because as we write it down, we put more neural networks in our brains that help us process what we read. It’s simple cognitive science.
  4. Notes look different depending on the purpose of reading and what you want to make of them. Annotating symbols or topics only will make your notes look different than they would if someone annotated just to make them easier to understand.

Okay: the strategy …

How to Annotate Text: The highlighting and paraphrasing strategy

I call this strategy HIGHLIGHT and REWRITE. Yeah I rhymed it because come on. As the name suggests, this strategy consists of two steps:

  1. To mark
  2. Rewrite

1. Mark

For most dense text, you should only read a paragraph or two at a time and highlight it as you read it. At this point, don’t write anything – just highlight it.

If you emphasize too much, nothing will stand out. If you emphasize too little, there is no point. The first part of this strategy is about knowing what to highlight. Depending on the purpose of your reading and the nature of the text, here are some things you can highlight:

What to highlight for novels:

  1. Main ideas
  2. References to topics
  3. characterization
  4. Property development
  5. Conflicts – internal and external
  6. Premonition and symbols
  7. Turning points / main events
  8. Interesting parts
  9. Parts that you have questions about
  10. Words you want to look up

What should be emphasized for non-fiction books or scientific articles?

  1. Main ideas
  2. Important event or data
  3. Contrasting views
  4. Important people
  5. characterization
  6. Interesting parts
  7. Parts that you have questions about
  8. Words you want to look up

No more than a few sentences or sentences should be highlighted in each paragraph, depending on the length of the reading. This is a quick process. Read, think, swipe.

How to annotate text using the highlighting and rewriting strategy

2. Rewrite

After reading and highlighting a paragraph or two – nothing more than that – you will start writing things in the margin. If your text is full of highlighters but no words, you’re doing it wrong.

After highlighting, there are basically two things you want to write in the margin.

1. A very simple summary of what you have just read. Think rewrite = summarize. Use bullets or phrases – no full sentences required. Use your own words. Do not use the language from the original text. Copying the text directly into the margins literally gets you nowhere. Taking the time to write a brief summary will make sure that you really understand what you have just read. If you can’t sum it up, you don’t understand.

2. Write down the reason why you highlighted certain parts. So if you read Catcher in the Rye and highlight a reference to Holden’s red hunting hat, which is a symbol, you would write “symbol” or “he thinks of Allie,” which the hat symbolizes when you read the book.

When you highlight something that you thought was a harbinger, write “foreboding” next to that part. When you have highlighted a new word, write the definition. When you highlight something interesting, write down why it is interesting (your real reaction).

If you don’t take the time to write a note about what your highlights mean, you won’t remember why you highlighted something when you return to text later.

Analog or digital notes

Consider digital annotation when most of your reading is online – for example, if you have an online PDF or textbook. If you have messy handwriting or something like dysgraphia, digital note-taking is for you. If you’re reading a paper novel, there’s a PDF version for you to comment on. If you’re reading an article on paper, scan it into your computer so you can use an app to comment on it.

If you are studying kinesthetically or if you just prefer analog learning, make your notes on paper. If the text you want to comment on is online, print it out.

Final notes on commenting on text using the highlighting and paraphrasing strategy

This should be repeated: the whole purpose of commenting is to better understand the text. While you might get annoyed that annotations are slowing down your reading (which they do; you’re right), it’s actually a good thing. If we slow down and think about what we are reading and then write about what we are thinking, we can fully understand the text before us.

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