When I was in high school, my teachers often asked me to annotate. To be honest, I felt that annotating was really time-wasting and boring. What was the point in bringing school texts full of highlighting and still having nothing in mind? Later on, I found it’s hard to survive long texts without the help of good annotations.  It is extremely important when you have to read lots of reference books for your essays or theses. Let annotations become your best employee! They record for you, discuss with the author for you, and link ideas for you. What can you ask for more?

Annotating right is not as easy as it seems to be. If you don’t know how to work well with it, you’ll end up with the same trouble like me in high school. Here are my top picks to help you out!


Less is always More

You should always keep in mind “Less is more” when it comes to annotations. Drowning in tons of words doesn’t benefit you at all. Slow down your speed a little bit and decide worthy-annotating words or phrases.

What to look for? Find unfamiliar names, quotable text, key research, statistic & facts, themes or whatever features that are interesting to you or important but hard to remember. You can decide whether a text is worth annotating by asking questions such as “Is it a big event? Does that part really stand out?” Asking these questions will help you not to sweat the small stuff.

Don’t be too greedy with speed either. Reading super-fast doesn’t always help because you don’t really get the points. Take annotations step by step. You can divide texts into sections and tackle one or two sections only at a time.

Review your notes


After reading, don’t close your book or put the text away immediately. It’s good to run through your notes for several times. Once you finish reading, you have a clearer picture what the text is about. Looking back those annotators, you may answer some of your questions that you have at the beginning. You may want to change or add something more to your notes. This process is very important as you can correct yourself and have a deeper understanding of the text.

Let your highlighter rest for a while

I totally agree that highlighter makes text outstanding. But too-many-outstanding things can spin your head when looking back. You can try pen or pencil instead. Use them to circle difficult or unfamiliar words, specific methods, key findings or specific subjects.

You may find sticky notes helpful as it spares you more space to write and give comments. Without them, reading afterward can be a burden. My papers used to look like a maze when it turned into a combination of its own words and my ugly handwriting.

Use more symbols and margin


Tired of too much writing? Add symbols. It could be a question mark, an arrow, a plus or a star. A small question mark has the chance to become a big issue for discussion or idea for your thesis.

Symbols save you time and energy. Symbols play many different roles in annotating. They show reasons, make a connection or indicate a contradiction. Symbols say more than words if you want to run through reading again.

Using marginalia and symbols together is a huge plus. You’ll know exactly what you want to ask in line with texts or what specific points that are important. Margin even works well when you leave your sticky notes at home.

Have more fun with annotating

Make annotations personal


Anyway, annotation belongs to you and works for you. So, just make it your own. Use your favorite colors. Choose whatever symbols that you like. For example, two question marks (??) for extremely difficult questions or an exclamation (!) for something surprising.

Coding your colors is a great idea to group annotations into themes like arguments, questions or contrasts. Never use more than two colors without coding them. Too many colors with no rule can be a hazard and makes you dizzy.

As for me, I choose red for arguments, blue for big questions and green for unfamiliar words. I also put a heart-shaped symbol when I read something emotional.

Chit-chat with your annotation

Having a conversation with your annotation is a good rule of thumb. This imaginary friend encourages you to take part in the text actively.

How to chat with this friend? Just do what you usually do with your friends but focus on the content of your book.

Share your emotions! How are you feeling when reading that sentence in the textbook?  Is it funny, surprising, tear-jerking or even too silly? Jot it down.  “What is going on the author’s mind when saying this?” Save that question in the margin or sticky note (as I mentioned above).

You and your annotating friend can also argue with the author. Let’s say “I think what the author told us is completely old-fashioned.” Just remember to write it down. It does help you later on.

Such talking does not only bring you more joy but also triggers your minds and creates ideas. Lots of my ideas for discussion or essay come from this kind of thinking.

Be more creative

Annotations don’t need to be a symbol or words. It can be visuals. A doodle or small drawing is fine! You can add a relevant picture if you like.

These tips work well for me. Hopefully, you’ll find this helpful. As practice makes perfect, bear these tricks in mind each time you have to annotate. Annotations not only improve your understanding but also keep a record of brilliant ideas which have blown your mind in time.

Which methods do you use for annotations, share with us in the comments below! We’d love to hear from you.

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One comment on “Annotating and Highlighting Tips for Students

  • “Less is alway more” – I tend to overuse my highlighter a lot and it really gives me a headache since highlighting everything means nothing stands out. Guess I should start from learning to know when a text is worth annotating.

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