How to Annotate

A couple of days ago, I posted this on Twitter as a joke:

Besides my post providing a laugh for some people, it also made people ask if the book on the left was my book, and if so, how I annotated it. First of all, yes, it’s my copy of Heart of Darkness that I read in Literature last year – a dark book about racism and the nightmarish reality of imperialism. So I decided to write this post to share how I annotate my books and to help some of you know where to start if you’re thinking of annotating your books! Enjoy!


Sticky notes are really the go-to tool for anyone who’s starting off with annotating. They’re cheap and easy to use, but most importantly, REMOVABLE. A lot of readers have fears about marking up their books and are very protective of them, so if you’re worried about making a mistake with your highlighting or writing, sticky notes are the best alternative. I recommend using the small plastic ones because they look the nicest and aren’t too thick and distracting.

For me, I like to use lots of different coloured sticky notes and have a key at the front or back of my book that reminds me what colour means what. For example, I prefer to stick these tiny pieces of plastic on a page depending on the themes or the characters. Or I might even have a colour sticky note designated to quotes I like. You can use coloured sticky notes for everything! Just keep in mind that my biggest piece of advice is to USE THE SAME COLOUR FOR THE SAME STUFF so it’s easier to find that you’ve tabbed.


The next step up from sticky notes is highlighters – which can be scary for some people. It’s important to find one that’s not too thick and you can control easily. The worst thing is when you have one that’s too thick and you can’t draw with properly and you highlight too much of the passage, or highlight it wonky. It’s also important to be definite in what you want to highlight, because if you take too long, the colour will seep through to the other side. So be confident with your highlighting!

Like with the sticky notes, I like to use the same colour highlighter for the same sorts of things and refer to a key I’ve written at the front or the back of the book.


Lastly, a good pen is a must-have for anyone annotating a book. While some people feel completely uncomfortable with writing in their books because they’re scared it’ll look messy or they’ll make a mistake that they can’t erase, there’s nothing I adore more than writing my thoughts or little notes off to the side of the page. Some people prefer using a pencil, but for me, I can’t stand using pencil unless it’s REALLY SHARP and will turn out looking like a pen. But by that point, it will tend to leave an indentation in the page that won’t come out even with erasing, so I just find that using a pen is more convenient for me.

But finding the right pen for this job can be tricky. The only pens I feel comfortable using are the ones that have extremely thin or small ballpoint tops. I like my writing to be thin and tidy, and it’s impossible for me to be neat and write small with a thick pen. I also refuse to use liquid pens, like fine liners, because I find that they bleed through the pages. I found a really excellent pen to use for annotating and I’ve been using it ever since I got it… three years ago! I need to get more like these, but I found them in a small stationary store in Nanjing and I’m unsure as to whether I’d be able to buy them online. I should really have a look at that! When it runs out, I’ll have to go on the hunt for a new favourite annotating pen, or fly back to China.


Unlike my previous two methods, I prefer to just use the black colour in my four-colour pen to annotate because I feel that it keeps everything looking neat and ordered. There’s enough colour in the book with the highlighting and the sticky notes, so it would just be too chaotic with any pen other than a black one. If I want to write a note or a comment, I like to draw a straight line from the word or sentence I’m talking about and write the annotation in the margin, preferably the one closest to the outside of the book if I have enough space. Writing close to the middle where the pages can get messy and my writing often becomes sloppy there because there isn’t enough room for my hand there. In emergencies, I’ll write in between the lines of text, but only if there’s ABSOLUTELY no more room on the page.

And if I’m writing in the margin and I run out of room there or misjudge how much space I need, I put a tiny asterisk beside the last word and put an asterisk down the bottom of the page and continue there. If I have more than one note I didn’t finish, I’ll make up other little objects, like dots, and use them as a guide that shows me where I’ve continued my note.


Ultimately, annotating books can be very scary, especially for those who haven’t marked-up their books before. The most important thing to remember is to be confident and do what you like with it. It’s YOUR book, and if worst comes to worst, you can always buy another copy! But to me, annotating is a physical mark of love on a book and it shows just how much it means to you. I find annotating really fun and it feels like I’m actively participating in the reading experience rather than just staring at the pages. But everyone annotates differently, and that’s just how I approach it!


Are you someone who annotates books? Which books have you annotated recently? What tools do you use to mark-up your book? If you haven’t annotated a book before, do you think it’s something you might like to try? Let’s talk!

Gorgeous images used in the header sourced from Blogspot and Illustration Web.



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