A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of my copy of Normal People by Sally Rooney and got a few messages about how & why I annotate my books. Someone requested I write a blog post on it, so here it is!
Annotating books just means to add notes and thoughts as a kind of commentary to the story. You can keep this in a separate notebook (if you’re super organised), on your phone, or do what I do and just write directly onto the page. Sometimes, especially if it’s a special edition or was a gift, I will write on sticky notes and add them into the book so as not to ruin the pages.
Why Do I Annotate?
Annotating books is familiar to me, but I haven’t done it much since university.
At uni, I would annotate all the time so that I could
- Keep up with the story
- Write notes for future essays
- Underline important/nice quotes
- Have a discussion point for class
Amongst other reasons…
After university, I stopped annotating because I was focused on reading as many books as possible – and annotating slows me down. I always had a pen on me when reading to underline quotes I loved, but most of the time, I would just dog-ear the page or write the quote out into my phone notes.
I rarely took notes on the book – until last year. I found myself scribbling notes in the margins of books such as Conversations With Friends and A Tale For The Time Being. The reason I did so was because these books were packed with so much goodness that just reading them wasn’t enough to squeeze out everything I wanted.
So I annotated. I annotated to underline quotes I loved, comment on the characters, note things I liked/disliked for my own writing journey, ask myself questions, analyse the text and generally just have a conversation with myself about the book.
And now – that’s what I’m doing still. This year my goal was to annotate every book that I read so as to take my time over each story. I wanted to stop myself from zipping through literature and not taking it all in. I wanted to stop, slow down and get serious about words that people spent years writing.
It hasn’t always been good notes and good analyses. I’m often very critical (as you’ll see from my review of The Flatshare) but annotating has helped me understand why I like or dislike something. Plus, it also helps me organise my thoughts so I can write a review on the book.
A huge reason I annotate, though, is so that when I’m old (or gone) people can read my books and communicate with me, see how I was feeling, what made me laugh, what made me cry, what made my heart break, so that when they read the book, they don’t feel alone. Annotating books immortalises me in the time of reading and keeps the whole experience alive.
So that sums it up for why I annotate – but now for how exactly I annotate.
Someone commented on my annotations being really simple – and I think that’s a good place to start if you’re new to annotating. Keep it simple. Don’t pressure yourself to get your books to look a certain way or be aesthetic or super detailed.
I’ll break down a few things I do into categories.
#1 – Underline Quotes I Love
The main thing I do when annotating is underline quotes I love. I use a black or a coloured pen to do so. Every time I read a book, I use one black and one coloured pen – and I make sure I only use that one colour throughout. I have no idea why – I guess just to be consistent and not to get too messy. (I usually colour coordinate this with the front page of the book.)
When I find a quote that I find relatable or can be quoted on its own, I underline it (with either pen, it doesn’t matter).
I also underline or put brackets around quotes if I find them helpful for my own writing. For example, if I like a particular description of the weather, I’ll underline or put brackets around it and put a note as to why I’ve done so in the margins or on a sticky note.
#2 – Thoughts at the End of a Chapter
Normally, I’ll gather my thoughts at the end of a chapter. I like to write these on sticky notes to protect the page and because it looks cute. I’ll just write a thought about a favourite theme, character or moment. Or I’ll theorise about what might happen next.
If I don’t feel I have anything to say – then I won’t.
Doing this helps me when I revisit a book. I can kind of get a feeling about a certain chapter without needing to fully reread it.
#3 – General Commentary
If something in the book makes me stop and ask myself something, I’ll usually write it into the book. I like to use blank notes and sticky washi tape because it doesn’t ruin the page.
Also, you can flick the note up so you can read what’s underneath it (which you can’t do with general sticky notes).
Basically, for this, I just write down thoughts or questions I have. Usually, this is about character motives – it’s kind of like if I were to bring this book to a discussion, these are the questions I would ask fellow readers. Again, this is good for when I’m writing a review so I can look back and make sure the author answered all my questions. It’s also good for if I pick the book up randomly and skim through it, I get a general sense of how I was feeling.
I will also write in the margins. This fully depends on how long my “thought” is. If I think it can fit in the margin, I’ll normally just do that so as not to waste paper or rip myself away from the narrative too much.
#4 – Understanding Characters
Another thing I’m always noting is the characters. You can have a boring plot and great characters and still have a 5 star read. So I like to note my characters. I might underline some of their quirks, or point out things they do to myself, or write a whole sticky note about them here and there.
I like to look back on these to see what kind of things work for my own novel. For example, if a character is overly sexual, for example, I’ll take note of that to remind myself that balancing such qualities is super important.
I’ll also take notes on how real a character feels. If they do something that is particularly realistic, like asking a vulnerable question in an awkward moment, I’ll maybe note that if it speaks to me.
This changes a lot depending on what scene I’m writing in my own novel. Right now, I’m working on making sure the setting of my main character’s home is vivid. So recently, when I read Peter Pan I found myself grasping onto the descriptions of location a lot.
#5 – How I Feel
A big thing I find myself doing is writing how a paragraph, sentence or section makes me feel. This is another thing that I think is important for when rereading books or having someone else read my old books in decades to come. By doing this, I characterise myself in a way. And I think that’s super interesting. In the moment though, I’m just doing it to gather my own thoughts/feelings about a book. But it will have a lasting importance.
#6 – Theorise
I annotate to theorise. To figure out the endings. To predict where the book is going. I will write my theories on sticky notes or in the margins or at the end of chapters. Looking back is always so interesting to see how I responded to the author’s storytelling and whether I thought they did it at a good pace.
#7 – Ranting
If you saw my copy of The Flatshare – you’d laugh. All my annotations are pretty much just me ranting.
I didn’t like this book. Nope. But I loved annotating it. I had such a laugh with myself and it made the characters seem okay to be around because I knew that when I sat down to read, I would be able to have a bit of a laugh with the ridiculousness of this book.
Ranting, for me, usually isn’t deserving of a sticky note. It’s normally just a couple words here or there. This is great for looking back and having a good laugh if I’m feeling down. Or explaining to someone why I didn’t like a book.
#8 – It’s Not Working
I’ve kind of already said this but I’ll take note of things that aren’t working, too. So if a scene has way too much thought and inner dialogue, I’ll note that. This helps me ingrain in my mind that this kind of thing turns me away, and I shouldn’t use it in my own writing.
#9 – Good Writing
One of the main things I do when annotating is noting good writing. I’ll underline or put brackets around a sentence and explain to myself why I like it so that when I flick through a book, I can stop at a bit I’ve noted, study it and try and use the technique in my own writing.
And that’s it!
Those are the reasons I annotate and the 9 things I tend to do when annotating. Keep it simple, have fun and don’t do it if you don’t like it 🙂
A few questions I got asked when preparing for this blog post included:
1) Do you lend people books you’ve annotated?
No. I know that defeats my point earlier about wanting people to see my thoughts – but that’s only after I’m gone so I can’t be embarrassed. I don’t lend anybody books that I’ve written in because at the moment, it feels too personal. Also, I don’t want to sway their reading experience.
2) How do you get the pen to not leak through the page?
Don’t use super inky pens. If you hold a ballpoint pen to paper and it bleeds, it won’t be good to write with. I use these from Amazon and they don’t rip, tear or show through the page.
3) How do you decide what to read next?
This question was asked in the question box. I’m not sure how it relates to annotating but I’ll answer it anyway. I have no idea. I am part of a book club so that always contributes to my reading list. Also, if something is coming out as a book or film, I’ll prioritise that. I also like reading seasonally, so if it’s autumn, I’ll lean towards a mystery or thriller. But other than that, I have a shelf for the top books I want to read next, so I’ll just look at that and see how I feel. Depending on my mood, I’ll choose my next read.
4) Where do you buy your things?
I use a lot of things when annotating.
First, I use a page anchor which can be purchased here. Then I use any kind of pens (but the smaller ballpoint the better, and also not runny ink). I use sticky notes from Typo, but they aren’t available anymore. I haven’t found a new favourite set yet but I’ll share it on my stories when I do!
Thanks for reading 🙂