Reading with a Pencil (Part 2)

Author’s Note:  This is the second of a two-part post on annotating. See the first part of this post by clicking here:  Reading with a Pencil (Part 1).

I recently posted about the benefits of reading with a pencil. To most people, this seems like a trivial thing to write about. Why waste time writing in books when I should be reading them?

Your time is valuable. The hours you can give to reading are in short supply. What if the simple act of writing in your books could vastly improve your reading? What would that mean for you? What would that be worth?

My favorite pencil:  Pentel 205 (0.5 mm)

My favorite pencil: the Pentel P205 (0.5 mm)

I’ve been annotating for over a decade now, and it’s had a tremendous effect on my reading. I wasn’t a quick reader in high school or college, or even in my first few years of teaching. But annotating changed that. I noticed that when I annotated, I got through books faster because I was paying better attention. The argument of the books became clearer and easier to follow. Most significantly, I could remember what I’d read. I was even able to repeat specific content from the book from memory months after finishing the book!

When talking with friends about books, they often mention my good memory. I laugh when they do, because I don’t have that great of a memory (ask my wife). Annotating my reading helps push the book’s content to my long-term memory. Though several people think I’ve got a great memory, I’ve really just got some sharp pencils.

Your time is valuable. Get more out of your reading time by reading smarter. Begin using a simple annotation system. Here’s the system I’ve been using for years:

  • Underline—I underline any sentences or phrases that are central to the argument, or that clarify difficult concepts. If the passage is longer than three lines, I usually draw a vertical line in the margin to mark it. Be careful: if you underline too much on a page, your annotations won’t mean much.
  • Checkmark—I use checkmarks to identify which underlined passages are the most important. These passages form the outline of the argument, pivotal actions by characters, or vital images. The goal of identifying these passages is to allow me to pick up the book and quickly skim its content by just reading the checkmarked passages. This is really important when I teach or use the text in my writing or speaking.
  • Asterisk—When a passage stimulates deeper thought or makes a connection to another text that I want to explore, I put an asterisk by it. I also usually add some note that will remind me of the connection, such as “Cf. Augustine on suicide (City of God)”. The reason for using asterisks is a very important one. Asterisks flag important ideas that I want to explore later, after I’ve finished the chapter or book. This allows me to stay focused on the book’s message instead of drifting down a rabbit-trail of sideways thought (though this can also be profitable at times—and downright enjoyable!).
  • Dog-ear—To mark the really important passages in a book, the passages that cause paradigm shifts, I dog-ear the page. I do this very sparingly—no more than three times in a single book. And I don’t even do it with every book. As with the other annotations, the point of the dog-ear is to quickly find the book’s most important content. When I want to reference the book later, I can pull it off the shelf and quickly find the good stuff.

That’s it! An annotation system that is simple, complete, and consistent. If you usually annotate, chances are good that your system is very similar. If you aren’t used to annotating, just steal my system, grab a pencil, and get to work!

Question: What marks do you use to annotate?