Emily Zhen: My love/hate relationship with annotating

Just as I prepare to flip the page and venture onto page 22 of “The Catcher in the Rye,” it hits me.

I forgot to annotate the first 21 pages.


Reluctantly, I scrounge my room for my pencil case, dig in my fingers for an ink pen and finally, return to my comfy reading spot on the couch. But in the two minutes it took for me to retrieve that pen, the insights I had about Holden Caulfield and his mishaps vanish. Even with my pen at hand and ink touching paper, I am at a loss for words.

This was a common scene for me before, when scribbling notes in the margins of books was the bane of my existence for summer reading assignments. To me, it seemed useless. In my mind, annotating was a choice between vandalizing the pure white pages of books or dealing with hundreds of Post-It Notes that never seemed to stick. But the biggest reason I hated annotating was because I never knew what to write—not because I wasn’t thinking while I was reading, but because I truly didn’t know how to annotate. Clueless about what to write, annotating disrupted my train of thought while reading.

Confession: in an effort to scribble down notes on every few pages, sometimes I resorted to writing “LOL” and “hahaha” next to the text. It sounds crazy, I know. I laughed out loud. So I recorded myself laughing out loud. Perfectly logical, right?

Not exactly.

But then AP Lang and AP Lit taught me to how to annotate, thanks to Mrs. Plackett, Mrs. Weiss and Dr. Deurlein. Soon after, I realized how valuable annotating truly is. Here is what I learned and what I try to apply when reading and evaluating texts now:

  1. Annotating can be simple markings: Underline key sentences, star words that jump out at you, and write “A” or “D” for agree or disagree in the margins. Come up with symbols to represent meaning to save time and ink. For example, if you are annotating for a prompt asking for the attitude of the author towards a topic, you could use “At” to symbolize passages that discuss author’s attitude.
  2. Make your annotations natural, yet meaningful: Don’t think too hard about what to write in the margins. After all, these notes are for you, not your teacher. Jot down what comes to mind and don’t force anything. Remember that annotations can be extremely helpful when returning to a past text and refreshing your memory on what you read. It’s much easier to read your annotations than to read the whole book again. That being said, unless you think you can write an essay from your annotations of “LOL” and “hahaha,” avoid the nonsensical commentary. If you’re writing an essay about how the author incorporates humor and comedy in his or her writing, then completely disregard what I just said. The “LOL” comments may be essay gold.
  3. How much you annotate is up to you: Everyone is different. Some people benefit from annotating every little detail, and some people, including me, just like to note the major themes, important anecdotes and the lines that encapsulate the magic of the writer.

To those who hate and have always hated annotating, this column is for you. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to ask your English teacher for his or her recommendations for annotating. Because even though you hate it, teachers will continue to make you do it. My point is that it is better to learn how to annotate insightfully than to scribble incoherent comments, wondering if the teacher will ever check what you actually wrote.

Trust me.