Annotating: 4 Reasons You Should Read with a Pencil in Your Hand


You’re sitting in your favorite chair on a rainy Friday afternoon, reading a good book. You’re enjoying yourself. You don’t want to do any work–you’re done with that for the week. You just want to sit here and relax. Maybe even fall asleep.

And I’m about to tell you to pick up a pencil and write.


Well, dear reader, this is where you make a choice. You have two options: 1) you can sit there lazily and read passively until you fall asleep because that’s what you feel like doing, or 2) you can sit there intelligently and read actively because that’s how to get the most out of that book you’re reading.

If you picked Option Number 2, keep reading, you clever devil.

If you picked Option Number 1, you should also keep reading, because I’m about to do a little persuading.

Why You Should Annotate

Commence the persuading.

1. Annotating helps you understand what you’re reading.

In eighth grade, I was in my mom’s literature class for homeschoolers. (Yes, I was homeschooled. Before you start asking questions about it, go watch this video.)

She had us annotate stories when we read them, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t hate it with a passion, but I didn’t like it. I didn’t think I needed it, because I could understand the stories well enough without annotating, and even if I missed something, someone else in the class probably caught it. Oh well.

Then I started taking the ACT and PSAT.

And suddenly I had to understand what I was reading. It wasn’t enough just to read through the passage and then move on to the questions.

Understand this–I’m a strong reader. Growing up, I always read books above my grade level. But for those standardized tests, you need to be a meticulous reader. You can’t miss a few details, because that might mean missing a few questions, which might mean missing a few points.

So I started marking up the passages. Those tests are timed, so you don’t have just all the time in the world to make notes in the margins, but you can still mark a little bit.

My annotating consisted of underlining sentences I thought were important, circling words I didn’t know, and putting a star next to information I thought I might be questioned on. Sometimes, if I could feel my mind drifting, I would simply underline the sentence I was reading, just to pull myself back in. No matter what, I kept my pencil hovering over the paper, ready to mark.

My score shot up. And I was barely annotating, people. Like, bare minimum.

Now, this wasn’t for pleasure reading, but the fact remains–I understood what I read better.

Annotating (or any marking at all, really) forces your brain to engage. If you pick up a pencil, you immediately start looking for something to mark.

“Well, maybe I’ll just underline some important sentences.”

Great! You know what happens? Your mind starts analyzing which sentences are more important, so it pays closer attention to the sentences themselves.

You underline a character’s line because it’s important, and then you realize that the next character’s line is also important, and then you realize that the whole conversation is important. Suddenly, you realize that this is a major turning point for these two characters, so you bracket the whole conversation and make a note of it in the margin.

If you hadn’t been looking for what to mark as most important in the first place, you would have missed that.

2. Annotating helps you remember what you’ve read. 

Storytime again. In my junior year of high school, we had this huge book to read for history. It was a great book, really, but it was packed with 1000 pages of information about U. S. history, and a lot of it was pretty dry. No pictures.

I decided early in the school year to take notes on it. I couldn’t mark in the margins, so I took separate notes in a little journal.

Not only did this help me understand the material better, but I found that I remembered it better, too. When I paused to write down key events or interesting facts, I could recall them much easier than when I read without taking notes.

This goes back to the basic idea that writing things down helps you remember things. It’s why students take notes in class–but even if you never look at your notes again, you’ll remember the concepts better than if you had just read the book passively.

And this doesn’t have to be taking notes in a separate book–just make notes in the margins or underline the things you like. Like I said before, it makes your brain actively engage, which means you understand it better, which means you remember it better.

3. Annotating makes it easier to reference what you’ve read. 

There are two reasons for this one: the obvious one and the less-obvious-but-still-there-and-important one.

The obvious one is that when you’ve underlined a sentence on a page, it’s easier to find that sentence. It’s generally the reason you underline something in the first place–to make it stand out.

So when you remember that one sentence that you read and really liked, and you remember the general area it was in but not the exact page, you can look for the things you’ve underlined and find it quicker.

This works even better if you read with those little sticky notes with you so you can flag a page with a particularly important or profound thought. (I don’t do this, but my dad does. He has lots of books with little flags sticking out all over them.) Or, you can always dog-ear a page, which gives a book a really well-worn, well-loved look. And it makes things easier to find.

The other reason builds off of the last one–if you remember what you’ve read better, you can find it easier. You have a better idea of the timeline of the book and of which thoughts were linked to which events.

So if you’re writing a paper or having a discussion, you can have the ideas and quotes that you liked easily accessible. You won’t have to do that weird thing where you type the name of the book and all the words of the quote that you can remember into Google and then sift through all the options that come up. I hate that.

4. Annotating allows you to look back at what you thought when you were reading. 

If you’ve annotated a book–really marked it up  well and made good notes–then when you read it again, you have a little window into what you were thinking the first time.

You thought that character was great last time you read that book–but since then you’ve thought more about it and you’ve talked to your friend who didn’t like the character at all. How has your opinion changed? Do you think differently about that line that you marked as “so sweet and inspiring” last time?

You know the ending of the book, now–suddenly you realize the answer to that question you scribbled in the margin. Suddenly you realize that that scene you thought was out of place was actually foreshadowing the climax. Suddenly that line you marked as “doesn’t make sense” makes perfect sense.

And then you can make your new notes–you can answer your questions and explain to your past self what is going on. In doing this, you cement your understand of the book even further, which helps you remember it better, which means you can reference it easier.

See how we’re building, here? Isn’t that nice?

And so, dear reader, annotating improves your overall reading experience.

It’s like butter. It makes everything better.

In all seriousness, though, annotating is a fantastic way to get the most out of whatever you’re reading. If you’re still not not convinced, go read How To Mark a Book, by Mortimer J. Adler. He’s basically arguing my point, but he’s doing it better.

NOTE: If you’re reading a junk book that’s completely plot driven and has no depth (and we all do this, sometimes–it’s okay), annotating is probably not going to do you much good. That book in general is probably not going to do you much good.

But when you pick up that thick, meaty book–that Shakespeare or Dickens or Twain–and you sit down to read it, think about whether you want to get the most out of it.

And pick up a pencil, reader.

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