Why and How to Annotate Your Literature Reading Assignment

When it comes to literature, reading is only half the battle.

Even before you crack open the book, you know you’ll face a final essay or unit test on it. And in between, there are those quizzes and discussion questions to look forward to.

So it’s not enough to read the words on the page. You also have to understand them deeply, and to remember significant passages.

And that’s tough when you’re facing a complex work of several hundred pages.    

That’s where annotating comes in. Taking notes as you read is hands-down the best way to maximize your time on a literature assignment.

And, reality check? A lot of teachers require you to annotate. So even though stopping the flow of reading to take notes might feel like a drag, it’s a skill you need in your English tool box.  

Why you should annotate your book

Reason #1: It actually saves you time!

You might think you don’t have time to annotate and keep up with the reading schedule.

But the truth is that you don’t have time not to annotate. Because when you take a moment to mark a significant event in a novel or play, it takes just that—a moment.

When you have to skim back through the entire book to hunt for that place where you vaguely remember so-and-so did such-and-such, it can take you anywhere from a minute to an hour!

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll remember the event or passage because it is really important. You’ll be reading a ton of things that are “really important” over the course of the book. It’s simply not realistic to think that each one will all stick in your brain.

Reason #2:  It increases retention

When you read, information goes into your brain through the visual channel. Your audio channel might also be engaged if you hear the words in your head as you read them, or if you read aloud.

When you write a quick annotation, you call upon the kinesthetic part of your brain, the part that governs movement. All of a sudden, a new set of neurons fires up and starts working on the task.

And if your annotation is on a Post-it, and if you then pay attention to where you place that Post-it, like halfway down the lefthand page where the important passage was printed, you’re engaging one more channel: your brain’s spatial sense.

But why is that important?

Here’s how brains work: the more inputs, the more easily accessible the information is later. It’s like posting multiple links to the same web page in a bunch of different places: you’re going to get more click-throughs. And those multiplied “clicks” translate to better recall. You’re finding the information faster and more reliably.  

The simple act of writing down information helps you remember it better later, even if you don’t ever look back at your notes!

You might have had this experience using flashcards for studying vocabulary or science terms. I’ve experienced this phenomenon dozens of times when I’ve made a  shopping list and then (D’oh!) left it on my kitchen table. I remember a fair number of the groceries I need just because I took the time to write them down!

Unlike me at Trader Joe’s, you’ll be able to look up your notes when you need them, like when you study for your test or make an outline for an essay. But because you wrote them down, you might not even need to.

Reason #3: It improves your comprehension

It’s really hard to take notes if you have no clue what’s going on in the story! So when you get into the habit of annotating, you’re also getting into the habit of asking yourself what you just read.

If you’re struggling with what’s happening in the book—who’s doing what, why, and to whom—you can use your annotations to help.

Grab a Post-it and write down your questions. Be specific! “Why is everyone making fun of Piggy? I don’t get it!” Bring up your questions in class or talk about them with your friends or classmates.

Reason #4 It strengthens your analytical muscles

When you read, you are doing so much more than just reading. Your mind is drawing conclusions about characters and making predictions about what will happen next. And that’s incredibly helpful to your comprehension.

Imagine you read a few sentences about some character named Jack. You get a kind of feeling for him. You might not be sure what gave you this feeling, but you pause for a second and write a quick note on a Post-it: “Jack: jealous of Ralph? Wants control?” You stick it in the book in the spot that you were reading when you had that thought. Then you move on.

The next day in English, the teacher asks how the two main characters in the book feel about one another. You vaguely remember having a thought about that, so you flip through your book, find the right Post-it, and offer your Jack-is-jealous theory.

A classmate disagrees with your conclusion. So you defend your view by sharing the passage with the class. You point out the way the author described Jack, or the way Jack talked to Ralph, and all of a sudden, you realize you’re making a great argument!   

This analysis skill is exactly what you need in every single literature essay, so the more you practice it, the better you’ll write!

See? Annotating your book is helping you become a literature powerhouse. So now let’s check out how to do it.

How to annotate your book

There is no one right way to annotate.  (Unless your teacher has a system that you’re being graded on. In that case, follow that system!) Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your reading for any work of literature.

Where to write

If you have to purchase your books, you may as well write directly in them. Underline significant words and phrases, and take notes in the margin to draw conclusions or ask questions.

If your book comes from school or the library, invest in a pad of Post-its. These come in all kinds of exciting shapes and sizes, but the best ones are the 1.5 by 2 inch rectangles. You can use them whole for longer notes about plot developments and themes, and you can tear them into strips for short notes, such as just the character’s name or initials to mark a significant passage about him or her.

And here’s my super secret strategy: Write upside down on the Post-it! Once you stick the sticky part into the text in the approximate place that the note refers to, your note will be visible without your having to flip through the book. You’re welcome.

What to write

The Basics:

  • setting (when and where does the story take place)
  • plot (what happens in each chapter)
  • main characters (who’s who, and what are their traits)
  • any passages that your teacher pointed out or spent time on in class
  • quotes that relate to something you’ve discussed in class

Above and Beyond:

  • quotes that reinforce what you already thought / knew about a character
  • quotes that show something new about a character, or a character change
  • motifs (which ideas or images come up again and again)
  • theme (what message(s) is the author giving you)
  • symbols (what does that person, place, or thing *really* represent?)
  • literary devices (foreshadow, situational irony, alliteration, etc.)

If you’ve been assigned reading or discussion questions to answer, use the questions (in abbreviated form) as annotations on your Post-its. This way, you’ll know where to look up important information when you review for a quiz or test, or when you go hunting for concrete details for an essay.

Make it a habit

Now you know how and why you should annotate. Want some more encouraging news? Like most things in life, the more you do it, the faster you’ll get at it!

Make it easy for yourself. Use a pencil and a pad of mini Post-its as your bookmark so that they’re always on hand when you’re reading. Start the habit the next time you read, and you'll start reaping the rewards on your next essay or test.


What are your annotating strategies?

Do you use symbols or shortcuts to get a lot of into onto a tiny Post-it?

Share in the comments below!