I recently posted about annotating books on my JMoReads Instagram account and ever since then, I’ve gotten tons of questions on how I go about my process. So, I put together this little guide on how I annotate my reading material in hopes that it helps some of you develop your own distinct techniques!
Before we even get started, let’s talk about the inconceivably obvious elephant in the room. Yes, I write in my books. Yes, I enjoy writing in my books. And no, I don’t feel bad for writing in my books, so don’t even get any ideas about how you’re planning to make me feel guilty for it (book shaming is sooo 2011 *insert eye rolling emoji here*). Alright, now that we got that out of the way, we can move on to bigger and better things.
First, some basics…
Why do you annotate, isn’t that like basically committing book murder?
Uh, no. The complete opposite. Actually, let me explain. I have never yearned for a pristine-looking book collection. Okay, that’s a lie. Twelve-year-old me would have definitely cut your hand off if you would have even done something as little as accidentally dog-earing my book. But let’s not focus on that version of me – quite frankly, she was rather scary. And influenced. But mostly just scary. Let’s focus on the post-preteen version of me, she’s less…intense. It’s been years since I have longed for a perfect-looking bookshelf. It’s not something I’m interested in. If I want to make heart eyes at rows upon rows of books in model condition, I can go to the bookstore three blocks away. I want my book collection to look like my book collection. I want people to borrow a book of mine and be able to clearly see what passage I loved so much that I was compelled to draw a heart around it, what piece of dialogue made me laugh so hard that I dog-eared the page and highlighted it, not once but twice, and what sentence made me cry enough for it to be slightly smeared from coming in contact with a tear. I hope to someday pass down my book collection, and whether that’s to a child, friend, or stranger, I want that person to not only read the story at hand, but feel a little less alone while doing so. Because, who knows – perhaps what made them laugh, or cry, or simply ponder, is exactly how it made me feel, but how would they know unless it’s indicated as such? As an avid reader, I want to be able to experience each and every story told within every one of my books as intimately and authentically as possible; I want to live and breathe every sentence, taste every word. As an aspiring author, I’d feel the most honored if a reader came up to me with a battered, entirely written up copy of my book because that means they took the time to connect with each and every character, theme, and storyline on the deepest of levels.
Alright, enough with the gushy stuff. What type of books do you annotate?
Honestly, if I annotated every single book I read the proper way, it’d take me just about a year to get through a mere handful of them. Annotating – although enjoyable and liberating and totally something I think everyone should do – is time consuming. Almost every book on my shelf has at least a single pen marking in it, but the books I truly try to annotate from beginning to end are those that I predict will be four or five star reads. Sometimes even three star reads, but those are significantly less common. If I know a book will impact me in any way, shape, or form, I usually reach for my stack of pens, highlighters, and post-it notes and get ready to mark the hell out of it.
So, you write in any edition? *screams in horror*
NO! Everyone obviously has their own preferences when it comes to this, but I don’t touch my signed or first editions. I’m a rule breaker, not a monster.
Okay, now that we’re through with that, let’s move on to my actual annotating process. It’s so complicated (sarcasm intended), so I’m going to be a nice blog owner and lay it all out for you in an easy-to-read, step-by-step guide. Keep up, this is some serious shit.
Step 1: Turn to any of the beginning pages of your book and make yourself a key so that it’s accessible in case you ever need to remember why you highlighted and/or marked a certain word or passage. Keys are definitely not necessary but they help me out a whole lot, so I always recommend them to other aspiring bookish rule breakers. Coming up with a key is pretty simple, here’s an example of one of mine featuring one of my latest reads, Shanghai Girls.
A huge part of my annotating process is highlighting – it’s an easy way to give some order to your notes and annotations without necessarily looking too tidy. There’s two ways to incorporate the use of highlighters. You can either just highlight anything and everything you want without following a system, or you can do what I do and highlight based on a set structure. Just like in the picture above, I assign highlighter colors to different categories. The five categories I typically use are: anything important/details I should remember (this one is crucial for those who are annotating for reviewing or educational purposes), beautiful writing/passages or pieces of dialogue that spoke to me because of its fantastic use of words, scenes/moments that made me so unbelievably happy I almost cried (I’m a very emotional person so I cry…a lot. This category might not seem very significant to the average person, but I use it more often than not), scenes/moments that made me laugh, cry, or ponder depending on the genre of the book, and themes worth noting (not pictured because I sometimes don’t include this category in every book I annotate due to how time consuming it can become). Feel free to personalize your own categories and corresponding key, and be creative with it! This is supposed to be fun, after all.
Step Two: Okay, so you have the highlighting portion down. The next thing I tend to include are actual handwritten notes. For me, this is the most entertaining part of annotating. I get a lot of questions regarding this aspect of the process because most people are confused as to what they should write, and fortunately, there’s no set answer. I say ‘fortunately’ because this is what makes it so liberating and enjoyable. As far as my own technique though, I go back and forth between two types of notes. At times I’ll make a note about something I liked and/or appreciated, like in the picture shown below where I specifically comment about how I enjoy how Lisa Lee includes the definitions of certain Chinese phrases or slang terms, since it makes the entire experience a bit more relatable and transparent. My other types of notes are the ones I treat as a conversation with the characters, or sometimes even the author. So, for example, if a character does something questionable or idiotic, or both, I’ll write comments on the margins such as, “Why?!” Or if the author leaves us on a heartbreaking cliffhanger, I’ll totally pretend they can telepathically read my notes and I’ll write something like, “You better fix this, Ms. I-think-I-can-kill-your-favorite-character-without-any-consequences” – that note is actually taken directly from a book I annotated not too long ago.
It’s easy for people to shy away from annotating books because it can genuinely seem like a daunting process, but what most fail to realize is that it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need an English degree to read critically, and you most definitely don’t have to turn critical reading into a professional sport. Just enjoy it! Be creative and have fun. Out of everything it offers, when I look back at my annotated books, I see a diary – a genuine and raw insight into what and how I felt while reading certain moments in a book. Don’t dismiss annotating just because you think it needs to be immaculate and proficient.
And that’s basically it.
What? Were you expecting a longer process? Sorry to disappoint!
But really – try it! If you’re not fully comfortable with marking your precious children just yet, there are other options, although I still hope you try my method at some point. My first suggestion is to either buy or find a stack of sticky notes and do the note taking on those, instead of in the actual book. It’ll allow you to still explore and dissect the story on a deeper level without the commitment. Talking about commitment, another way to deal with that while still wanting to give my method a chance is to purchase a cheaper, preferably used copy of whatever book you want to annotate and use that instead; it’ll allow you a real feel for annotating without touching your bookshelf copy.
The above are just last minute suggestions for if you really, really, reallyyy (I obviously can’t stress it enough, but if you need even more convincing, here’s one more: reallyyy) are hesitant about committing to annotating a book or two. I think you should just go for it though…join the dark side. We have way more fun.