Reading with a Pencil (Part 1)

Author’s Note:  This is the first of a two-part post on annotating. See the second part of this post by clicking here:  Reading with a Pencil (Part 2).

As a teacher, I often talk to people about books. One of the most commonly voiced frustrations people make about their reading is how quickly they forget what they’ve read. Even teenagers, whose minds are far more supple than mine, share the consternation of older readers.

The solution is a relatively simple way: start reading with a pencil. One of the simplest and most effective skills of good reading is the skill of annotating. Anyone can become a better reader by simply writing in their books as they read.


If you’re used to reading just for relaxation or entertainment, the idea of annotating may seem too much like homework. But if you really want to become a great reader who can understand the heart and soul of a book on the first read, you’ll have to master the skill of annotation. Annotating improves our reading in several ways:

  • Stay alert. First of all, reading with a pencil means that you have to do something with that pencil. It is a tangible reminder that you are looking for key points, important quotations, central ideas, etc. This is a far more active type of reading than most of us are used to. The pencil in hand keeps our minds more alert and attentive.
  • Capture the good stuff. Annotating helps identify and mark the most important content in what we read: the outline of the argument, vital points of application, beautifully written sentences, wisdom that sparkles like crystal. We mark this stuff so that we can process it later, after we’ve finished our reading. By marking it now, on the first read, we don’t have to worry about remembering it for later. Instead, we can give our full attention to what comes next. By marking and moving on, we can focus better on the author’s message without an unruly interruption.
  • Chop difficult books down to size. Good readers are often reading books that are beyond their ability to easily comprehend. Annotating helps break up difficult books into more manageable sections. By focusing our attention on detail, annotating slows down a dramatic scene in fiction or drama, helping us see important clues to motive or character we would normally miss in the rush of the action. Often in philosophy or theology, the argument hinges on a specialized definition or a subtle connection of ideas. If we mark these key points in the argument now, it will be easier to get through a difficult passage later. By reading back through our annotations, we can review the argument up to that point, seeing how we got where we are from where we began. This makes it much easier to figure out where the argument is leading.
  • Remember more, remember longer. When we read passively—without a pencil—we move through the argument more quickly and with less attentiveness. Annotation requires us to mark the key elements of the text, which requires much greater attention. This kind of active reading helps us remember the structure of the text for a lot longer time. In fact, the single fastest way to get more out of your reading is simply to annotate—even if you never go back to read your annotations!

Annotation greatly enhances the first reading of a book. Develop the skill of annotation and you’re well on your way to mastering the art of reading.

Try it out.  Go find a pencil, a new book, and get to work!

Question: Have you tried annotating? Did it help your reading or hinder it?