Take Notes Like a Lit Major

Annotate Like a Lit Major
Happy September, Teacups! School is in full swing for many of you, and even if you’ve already done your time, it never hurts to brush up on your reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic (Ha! Just kidding!). “Like a Lit Major” is a little mini-series I’ve got up my sleeve this month; once a week I’ll be sharing some tips to power up your reading and writing skills. Whether you’re a student, a blogger, a book club devotee, or just looking to polish your email correspondence, there’s a little something for everyone!


Once upon a time, I was an ardent believer in the Supreme Golden Rule of book lovers everywhere: Thou shalt not write in books.

And then I became a Literature major.

Life as a Literature major meant having to suck up my opinions about writing in books, otherwise, there was no way I was going to survive on just recall and disheveled notebooks. Taking notes as you go keeps moments fresh in your mind as you’re reading, aligns your thoughts with what’s happening in the text, and frankly, it doesn’t tire out your hand nearly as much as trying to scribble long quotes down after the fact. Since I started making annotations in the margins of my school books, I found the writing process a lot easier too!

Sure, taking notes can be helpful, but where to start? You’ll annotate a work differently depending on what your intentions are (marking up a novel for a book club can look a lot different than taking notes for an academic journal), but there are some general guidelines that are easily transferrable, whether you’re writing blog posts or reviewing products.

So how can you make the most of your note-taking?

  1. Make a key – All of those circles and underlines mean nothing if you don’t know what they mean! It doesn’t have to be formal, but know what you’re talking about!
  2. Dog-ear your pages – The worst feeling in the world is losing a memo somewhere within the 400-pages of a book. Those notes aren’t doing you any good if you can’t find them again! Keep sticky notes or tabs on hand to mark the pages you wrote notes on (bonus points if you color code those too!). Folding over a corner works just fine if you find yourself without stickies on hand.
  3. Compile quotable moments – As you read, think about what parts of the text you might want to refer back to, either to cite, quote, or otherwise use as you’re writing. Compile those moments in a document or notebook so that you can easily refer to them as you write, even copying and pasting as you go without having to leaf through all of your pages in search of that one quote you know would be perfect. Provide page numbers for quick reference if you need to flip back to get a refresher on the context.
  4. Highlight moments of confusion – Notes aren’t just for brilliant realizations, connections, and ideas. Sometimes you read something that makes no sense, or a point that is just plain confusing. This could be good material to bring up at a book club or discussion, if you’re reading for fun. If you’re writing a piece in response, this might indicate a weak point in the original argument that you might want to address, or even serve as insight into a potential thesis question.
  5. Note your reactions! – I used to think it silly that I would find myself scribbling “Yes!” or “…really?” in the margins of a page, but your reaction to passages is just as important as any other notes you might make.

I may no longer feel like I’m committing a crime if I touch a pen to the pages of a book, but I try not to make a habit of it. Some novels, however, have been subject to my literary studies in college and still contain my original notes from class (Northanger AbbeyParadise Lost, and House of Leaves, to name a few) and that’s fine by me. But my personal books are just that – personal – and unless I need to make notes, whether for a paper or an article, or even some creative endeavor, I try to abstain from marking up books of sentimental value.

Stay tuned next Wednesday for the second topic in the “Like a Lit Major” mini-series: writing tips and tricks!

Writing in books: yay or nay? How do you take notes on a text?