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2.1.1: Annotate and Take Notes

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    As children, most of us were told never to write in books, but now that you’re a college student, your teachers will tell ou just the opposite. Writing in your texts as you read—annotating them—is encouraged! It’s a powerful strategy for engaging with a text and entering a discussion with it. You can jot down questions and ideas as they come to you. You might underline important sections, circle words you don’t understand, and use your own set of symbols to highlight portions that you feel are important. Capturing these ideas as they occur to you is important, for they may play a role in not just understanding the text better but also in your college assignments. If you don’t make notes as you go, today’s great observation will likely become tomorrow’s forgotten detail.

    Important note: most college and university bookstores approve of textual annotation and don’t think it decreases a textbook’s value. In other words, you can annotate a college textbook and still sell it back to the bookstore later on if you choose to. Note that I say most—if you have questions about your own school and plan to sell back any textbooks, be sure to ask at the bookstore before you annotate.

    If you can’t write on the text itself, you can accomplish almost the same thing by taking notes—either by hand (on paper) or e-notes. You might also choose to use sticky notes to capture your ideas—these can be stuck to specific pages for later recall.

    Many students use brightly-colored highlighting pens to mark up texts. These are better than nothing, but in truth, they’re not much help. Using them creates big swaths of eye-popping color in your text, but when you later go back to them, you may not remember why they were highlighted. To avoid this, create a consistent system for using each color (i.e. all items in blue refer to definitions, all items in orange refer to main ideas). Writing in the text with a simple pen or pencil is always preferable.


    When annotating, choose pencil or ball-point ink rather than gel or permanent marker. Ball point ink is less likely to soak through the page. If using erasable pens, test in an inconspicuous area to make sure they actually erase on that paper.

    What about e-books? Most of them have on-board tools for note-taking as well as providing dictionaries and even encyclopedia access.

    When you read and take notes, use the text coding strategy. Text coding (Annotating) is a way of tracking your thinking while reading. It entails marking the text and recording what you are thinking either in the margins or perhaps on Post-it notes. As you make connections and ask questions in response to what you read, you monitor your comprehension and enhance your long-term understanding of the material.

    With text coding, mark important arguments and key facts. Indicate where you agree and disagree or have further questions. You don’t necessarily need to read every word, but make sure you understand the concepts or the intentions behind what is written. Feel free to develop your own shorthand style when reading or taking notes. The following are a few options to consider using while coding text.

    Shorthand Meaning
    ! Important
    L Learned something new
    ! Big idea surfaced
    * Interesting or important fact
    ? Dig deeper
    (Insert your own symbol) (Identify a meaning for your symbol)
    (Insert your own symbol) (Identify a meaning for your symbol)
    (Insert your own symbol) (Identify a meaning for your symbol)
    (Insert your own symbol) (Identify a meaning for your symbol)

    See more text coding from PBWorks and Smekens Education.

    This video provides a demonstration of annotation in action.

    As you annotate, focus on some or all of the following:

    • Definitions. Look up and write down definitions of unfamiliar words.
    • Concepts. Underline what you think are the most important, interesting, or difficult concepts.
    • Tone. Note the writer’s tone–sarcastic, sincere, witty, shrill.
    • Biases. Look out for the writer’s biases and unstated assumptions (and your own).
    • Responses. Ask questions and note your own reactions and insights.
    • Connections. Make connections with other texts you have read or your own experiences.

    EXERCISE 1: Check Your Understanding: Annotation

    Directions: Print a hard copy* of a New York Times article of your choice. Pre-read the article to gather some first impression ideas. Then read the article completely, annotating as you go.

    *If you aren’t able to print a hard copy, carry out the following instructions using a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

    1. Double-underline what you believe to be the topic or thesis statement in the article. (The thesis statement is one or two sentences that summarizes the article’s main point and tells what it’s about. The thesis statement can occur anywhere in the article—even near the end.)
    2. As you read, underline points that you find especially interesting. Make notes in the margins as ideas occur to you.
    3. Write question marks in the margin where questions occur to you, and make written margin notes about them, too.
    4. Circle all words you don’t understand. Then look them up! ( is a good online dictionary and even pronounces words so you’ll know how they sound.)
    5. Use any other text/annotation codes necessary.
    6. When you’re finished, write a quick summary—several sentences or a short paragraph—that captures the article’s main points.

    License and Attributions:

    CC licensed content, Previously shared:

    The Word on College Reading and Writing. Authored by: Carol Burnell, Jaime Wood, Monique Babin, Susan Pesznecker, and Nicole Rosevear. Located at: 
    License: CC BY: Attribution.

    Basic Reading and Writing. Authored by: Lumen.
    Located at: 
    License: CC BY: Attribution.

    Adaptions: Reformatted, some content removed to fit a broader audience.


    2.1.1: Annotate and Take Notes is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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