Annotating a text

Annotating a text

English teacher and Insight writer Melanie Flower explains why annotating your texts is important and outlines how you can do it.

The word annotate comes from the Latin annotare, which means to add a mark. This is literally what annotation is – making marks on the text. While writing in books may have been frowned on when you were a child with an overactive crayon, as a student it is actually very useful to annotate as you read your set texts. Annotations allow you to keep track of your initial responses, note connections and ideas as they occur to you, and highlight words or sections that need clarification. Rather than relying on your memory, take the time to make brief notes so that you can preserve your flashes of insight and resolve your moments of uncertainty. The information below will help you to understand the value of annotations and to annotate your English texts more effectively.


1. Why?

Annotations can serve many purposes. The main function is, as explained above, to keep a record of your thought processes as you read. In addition, by annotating a text you are actively engaging with it and, as a result, you will read it more closely. Your reading becomes like a dialogue between you and the author, with you responding to the author’s ideas and developing your own opinion as a result.

A carefully annotated text is an incredibly valuable resource when you are preparing for a SAC or examination. The deeper engagement you develop with a text as you annotate will make it easier to recall key quotes and to navigate the text when looking for evidence to support your analysis.


2. What?

The things you are looking for will vary, but as a general rule you should focus on developing your understanding of characters, settings and themes. It can be helpful to highlight passages that reveal aspects of a character’s motivations, values and relationships with other characters. Similarly, pay attention to how the author creates a sense of place. You should also be looking for recurring themes and ideas, and the ways in which the author introduces and develops their main preoccupations and thus reveals their values.

If you are annotating a text that will be used for the comparative response then you could identify similarities or connections with the other text.

Make note of any unfamiliar vocabulary, distinctive stylistic features, and shifts in genre, setting, context and narrative voice. This information will be particularly useful when you are completing the creative writing component of Unit 3.


3. Where?

The most convenient place to annotate is in the margins of the text, as this allows you to immediately see the notes as you re-read the text. However, the margins do not give you a great deal of space. You may find that your notes need to spill over to the front and back covers of the book, or you could use sticky notes to give you more room. It can be useful to write brief plot summaries at the beginning or end of a chapter, and there is often space to accommodate this.


4. When?

If you are a quick reader you may find it helpful to read the text through once without making extensive notes, focusing instead on understanding the plot, getting to know the characters, and becoming familiar with the author’s style. It is still worth having a pencil in your hand even on this first reading, so that you can make brief notes on your initial responses and underline words or passages that need clarification. More detailed annotations can be done during subsequent readings. If you read slowly, try to annotate carefully on your first reading, keeping in mind that you will need to go back over the text and add information as you develop a more complex understanding.


5. How?

Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to annotating their texts. Some students use different colours to signify different textual elements, some identify characters and themes using a system of symbols and/or sticky notes, and others simply write extensively all over their texts in grey lead pencil. The key is to find a system that works for you. There are various websites that can help you develop your own style – if you put ‘how to annotate a book’ into your search engine you will find a wealth of options.

As a rule, keep your annotations brief. Use single words and short phrases rather than complex sentences. Remember that the annotations are there to record your ideas, remind you of connections, clarify meaning or draw your attention to key aspects of the text. The notes should be succinct, and your system should be consistent.


Annotating your text is an incredibly valuable exercise. While it may seem daunting and time consuming, you will find that it will help you develop a deeper understanding of any text you are studying. By the end of the year it should be obvious that your book has been read, studied and engaged with – keeping it pristine is not required. Don’t be afraid to make your mark.



Not sure how to approach your text essay? Insight has at least one Insight Sample Essay for each List 1 text and List 2 text pair. Each high-level essay features annotations and assessor comments identifying the elements of the essay that work and areas for improvement, as well as tips on how to approach the essay topic and appropriate strategies for analysis, all for just $3.95.

Insight Sample Essays are produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian educational publisher.


Photo: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

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