Annotating the Margins

As you progress throughout college and into your professional life, it’s going to become increasingly important to remember what you read. You might say, “Well, it was important for me to remember what I read in high school, because I was tested on the material and even had pop quizzes.” But that’s a different type of reading—you were reading to take a test or quiz, so you remembered the material temporarily. Do you still remember things you read in high school? How can you change the way you read now, in college, so that going forth you will be able to retain the things you learn from others’ writings? By annotating the margins of what you read, you can become a more active reader.

Now, you may be saying, “Annotation—that reminds me of the annotated bibliography I’ve done before, where I’ve written two-paragraph annotations for each source I’ve found for a paper.” Actually, annotations for a bibliography and annotations for the margins are similar: either way, you’re summarizing key points so that you’ll remember them later.

So how do annotations work as a reader’s tool? They serve as memory devices. When you return to a text you’ve already read—say, to locate evidence for a research paper—and that text contains your annotations, you’ll be able to quickly identify (1) key points that the author made and (2) bits of information that, when reading the piece for the first time, you considered particularly useful.

As a student and as a professional, you want to learn how to read texts and take notes that are not just definitions of key terms (though key terms might be phrases you include in annotations); rather, you want to learn how to take notes that help jog your memory about larger concepts. Sometimes, you may have to read the piece twice before you grasp the larger concepts. Re-reading material is not a sign of stupidity; even your professors have to re-read texts! Only annotate when you’ve determined larger concepts or key terms—or, if you want to take notes while reading, do so in pencil. You may also want to connect annotations with underlined or highlighted material. For example, if you find a sentence that points to the author’s tone, you may want to highlight or underline that sentence (or select words from the sentence) and then connect the sentence to a key word like “sarcastic.”

Now let’s turn to the process of writing annotations. It’s helpful to use two different annotations: after reading a page, on the top of that page write a key term or phrase that captures the material or most of the material on the page; after reading a paragraph, do the same thing for that paragraph—and write the phrase or term on the side margin. Take a look at the following paragraph and determine where you might place your annotation—and, more importantly, what would your annotation say?

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.[1]

So, we have here a paragraph (which has one main idea), though that main idea could be interpreted in different ways. The gist of it is, though, that doing research is like entering into a conversation: you want to know what’s been said before you so that you don’t sound silly by saying something that’s already been said. So, after reading this paragraph, I might write “research as conversation” on one of the side margins. That way, when I return to this paragraph, I will know the gist of it (and perhaps even remember details) without having to re-read the entire paragraph.

Suggestions for Types of Information to Emphasize through Annotation:

  • Thesis
  • Purpose
  • Tone
  • Main points and/or sub-points
  • References to other sources that keep appearing
  • Key terms/concepts
  • Other information that you find particularly important

[1] Burke, Kenneth. “Burke’s ‘Unending Conversation’ Metaphor.” Texas Tech University. Texas Tech U, 18 May 2011. Web. 22 May 2011.

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