How to Annotate

Looking over the shoulder of someone writing on a notepadAn active reading strategy for articles or textbooks is annotation. Think for a moment about what that word means. It means to add notes (an-NOTE-tate) to text that you are reading, to offer explanation, comments or opinions to the author’s words. Annotation takes practice, and the better you are at it, the better you will be at reading complicated articles.

Where to Make Notes

First, determine how you will annotate the text you are about to read. 

If it is a printed article, you may be able to just write in the margins. A colored pen might make it easier to see than black or even blue. 

If it is an article posted on the web, you could also you Diigo, which is a highlighting and annotating tool that you can use on the website and even share your notes with your instructor. Other note-taking plug-ins for web browsers might serve a similar function. 

If it is a textbook that you do not own (or wish to sell back), use post it notes to annotate in the margins.

You can also use a notebook to keep written commentary as you read in any platform, digital or print. If you do this, be sure to leave enough information about the specific text you’re responding to that you can find it later if you need to. (Make notes about page number, which paragraph it is, or even short quotes to help you locate the passage again.)

What Notes to Make

Now you will annotate the document by adding your own words, phrases, and summaries to the written text. For the following examples, the article “Guinea Worm Facts” was used.

  1. Scan the document you are annotating. Some obvious clues will be apparent before you read it, such as titles or headers for sections. Read the first paragraph. Somewhere in the first (or possibly the second) paragraph should be a BIG IDEA about what the article is going to be about. In the margins, near the top, write down the big idea of the article in your own words. This shouldn’t be more than a phrase or a sentence. This big idea is likely the article’s thesis.
  2. Underline topic sentences or phrases that express the main idea for that paragraph or section. You should never underline more than 5 words, though for large paragraphs or blocks of text, you can use brackets. (Underlining long stretches gets messy, and makes it hard to review the text later.) Write in the margin next to what you’ve underlined a summary of the paragraph or the idea being expressed.
  3. Connect related ideas by drawing arrows from one idea to another. Annotate those arrows with a phrase about how they are connected.Two circled textboxes. Left reads "Traditional removal of a Guinea worm consists of winding the worm -- up to 3 feet (1 meter) long -- around a small stick and manually extracting it..." Right reads "The best way to stop Guinea worm disease is to prevent people from entering sources of drinking water with an active infection..." A blue arrow moves from left to right, with blue text reading "Better to prevent than treat later!"
  4. If you encounter an idea, word, or phrase you don’t understand, circle it and put a question mark in the margin that indicates an area of confusion. Write your question in the margin.
    • “Depending on the outcome of the assessment, the commission recommends to WHO which formerly endemic countries should be declared free of transmission, i.e., certified as free of the disease.” –> ?? What does this mean? Who is WHO?
  5. Anytime the author makes a statement that you can connect with on a personal level, annotate in the margins a summary of how this connects to you. Write any comments or observations you feel appropriate to the text. You can also add your personal opinion.
    • “Guinea worm disease incapacitates victims for extended periods of time making them unable to work or grow enough food to feed their families or attend school.” –> My dad was sick for a while and couldn’t work. This was hard on our family.
  6. Place a box around any term or phrase that emphasizes scientific language. These could be words you are not familiar with or will need to review later. Define those words in the margins.
    • “Guinea worm disease is set to become the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.” –> Eradicated = to put an end to, destroy

To summarize how you will annotate text:

1. Identify the BIG IDEA
2. Underline topic sentences or main ideas
3. Connect ideas with arrows
4. Ask questions
5. Add personal notes
6. Define technical words

Like many skills, annotating takes practice. Remember that the main goal for doing this is to give you a strategy for reading text that may be more complicated and technical than what you are used to.