How to Annotate a Text for Understanding

Highlighting is just one way to annotate.
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Whether you’re reading for pleasure or in preparation for a class, diligent annotation helps heighten your understanding of the text immeasurably. Many writers rely on the assumption that their reader is going to work hard to understand developed, thought-provoking dynamics that may be buried beneath themes, metaphors and other literary devices. To annotate a text effectively, look for several important elements while reading.

1 Definitions

Whether you’re reading a text by William Faulkner, David Foster Wallace, Friedrich Nietzsche or another, make sure to look up words whose definition you aren't certain of and write the meaning of the word in the margin of the text. If you glance over words that you can’t define without referencing a dictionary, entire sentences, concepts and ideas could be lost. By looking up any word you aren’t sure about, you won’t only be broadening your understand of the text, but you’ll be improving your vocabulary as well.

2 References

Texts of all types make references to historical figures, events and situations. If you’re reading a text and encounter a reference that confuses you because you’re unfamiliar with it, circle, underline or highlight it and search either in an encyclopedia or online for information about the reference. Writers include these specific references, called allusions, to elaborate, explain and expand on themes, concepts and fundamental ideologies of the text. Once you've found clarifying information about the reference, go back to the text and write a brief explanatory summary beside the reference in the margin.

3 Fundamental Attributes

If you come across a specific scene or explanation of a character that is fundamental for understanding the true nature of that character, make sure to highlight or underline that section of the text. This could prove invaluable as you progress and try to better understand why certain characters are thinking, responding and acting toward other characters and the world around them in such a strange or unique manner. A disturbing incident in a character’s childhood could justify erratic behavior later in his fictional life.

4 Key Themes

Writers focus on specific ideas and concepts for a reason. Highlight or underline recurring subject matter. If baptism is referenced at several points in a text, and several scenes and pieces of dialogue address the issue, it’s important to keep these sections organized to understand why the writer is calling attention to this subject. Underlining, highlighting and other forms of annotation will help you compartmentalize key themes and ideas in a text, which will make analysis easier and help elevate your understanding of what you’re reading.

Jake Shore is an award-winning Brooklyn-based playwright, published short story writer and professor at Wagner College. His short fiction has appeared in many publications including Litro Magazine, one of London's leading literary magazines. Shore earned his MFA in creative writing from Goddard College.