I used to stubbornly resist annotating assignments and books, no matter how strongly others recommended it. It felt plain wrong, even disrespectful, to turn the creamy pages of books into stacks of neon yellow and blue (because if you’re going to highlight, highlight with school spirit), sprinkled with scribbled writing about this or that. I was told that annotating keeps you engaged with a given text, can improve your memory of what you read, can help you save time — yet I preferred to write out quotes in a separate notebook or utilize Post-its to the point where my books looked like butter-colored accordions. Call it stubbornness, call it hesitation, call it Nadya just being Nadya — I did not and would not sully any assigned reading with pen, pencil, highlighter, or paintbrush. 

With college came a greater need for time management, as well as more reading assignments than I’ve previously experienced, and my outlook shifted a smidge. No matter your majors or minors, college brings with it substantial amounts of reading, and coupled with actual class time, extracurriculars, and necessary stuff like eating and sleeping, homework can pile up to such a degree that writing out detailed notes isn’t necessarily efficient. We Honors students also have a tendency to intentionally make ourselves busy and take more challenging classes, putting us in a position for a greater need for homework efficiency. In fact, most of my annotating activity has of late been dedicated to assignments in my Honors courses.

With a great deal of perseverance and an even greater amount of ink, I’ve managed to fully overcome my perpetual annotation hesitation, and I’ll tell you what—it’s not all that bad. Generally speaking, annotating is great for visual learners (me), people who don’t read very quickly (also me), or those who’ve amassed too many pens over the years and need to use them (definitely me). 

It’s admittedly taken a while to get the hang of. For starters, what were once bright neon highlighters brimming with ink have become dry, pastel sticks of plastic, and every now and then my mother will come across me shaking a pen like a stubborn glow stick so as to get just a few more drops of ink out (just because I own a lot of pens doesn’t mean I’m going to squander them). Avoiding over-notating and under-notating has also been challenging, but it’s through this difficulty that I’ve gained a better understanding of how to concisely take note of important pieces of text. My personal rule is that if more than 50% of a page is highlighted, I may need to scale it back a bit. 

I have three general methods I like to use. If I’m reading something completely new to me, I take the trust-your-gut route and highlight phrases or words I feel may be covered in class later or that can potentially be useful for class discussion. If I’m reading a text analyzed in a lecture, I highlight quotes and other content specifically pointed out by my professor in one color and whatever else I find interesting or relevant to the way I interpret and understand the work in another. For both of these methods, I jot down my thoughts on certain parts of the texts whenever I feel inclined and sometimes write out things discussed in class or other reading assignments related to the text at hand. My third method is directly tied to my foreign language classes. When reading texts in Russian, I highlight whatever words I don’t know, look up their translation, and write the English equivalent directly above the words. This method takes more time, but I find it easier for later reference than writing out the words and translations on a separate piece of paper and useful for remembering which words I’ve already come across in the text. I would also be willing to argue that it’s a better method than simply looking up the translation and crossing your fingers that you remember it down the road!

Through my annotation adventures, not only have I more easily grasped and recalled what I read — I’ve also acquired some helpful hints. There’s some helpful things to note about annotating, especially about what you actually use to get the job done.

As much fun as it is to use glittery gel pens to annotate, whenever I write with them, my hand gets so sparkly that it looks like I’ve high-fived a unicorn. I personally like to use solid, non-glittery, thin-tipped pens since my giant hands can make writing in between lines clumsy enough as it is. Furthermore, as much as I love writing in neon pink, my eyes do not like reading in neon pink, so I recommend solid, legible colors (purple and blue are staples of mine). Also be sure that your writing utensils aren’t too runny, otherwise your hands and pages will become smudged with ink and highlighter juice.

I’ve likewise had to learn the delicate art of not pressing too hard on a highlighter so as to not annotate multiple pages at once, but just enough to get that satisfyingly eye-stinging glow. They even make erasable highlighters and pens, which is perfect if you make what Bob Ross may call “happy accidents”!

I’ve also found that doodling, whether it’s little wizard hats, surprised faces, or “Woah” in bubble letters, can also aid with memory retention and can help keep you engaged with the text. Generally speaking, don’t be shy when you feel inclined to draw or write something down, even if it’s something completely random that you happen to associate with the text. Trust me — it will help you better remember the text and may serve as a delightful (or confusing) surprise for someone who borrows your book or reading assignment down the road.  

Some electronic devices actually allow you to annotate onto a virtual document, which is especially useful if your professors provide you with online texts or PDFs. This can also save paper and allow you to access all of your annotated material in a single place. If this isn’t the case for you, you can always print out the pages your professor provides. However, if you don’t plan on keeping them for future use, please recycle! Don’t forget that you can adjust the scale of what you print as well, allowing you to fit more content onto a single page and thereby saving paper.

I used to worry that annotating renders books and other text unreadable and unusable. However, in time, you’ll learn to look beyond the mishmash of annotations to the material itself. And, if need be, you can refer back to your thoughts in the future, whether you’re pursuing a research project, feeling college nostalgia, or even writing a blog post. Of course, I don’t annotate all of my reading, but I’ve found that when it comes to larger reading assignments, especially if the material in question will be tested on later or be potentially useful in a future assignment, writing in the margins and highlighting is incredibly helpful. 

Annotating books and other text may strike you as strange or a waste of time. Up until college, I viewed it as a tedious thing to do myself, but these past two semesters, annotating has helped me focus and retain information and has been well worth the extra bits of time.

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