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The Annotation Controversy

The Annotation Controversy

inspiration reading May 29, 2024

To the surprise of literally no one, I am and have always been an English nerd.

In the United States, where I grew up, that not only means that I was a part of the “gifted reading groups” when I was a young child in school, but that I voluntarily signed up for the advanced English classes as a teenager when I was finally allowed to choose my own classes.

These classes – at least in my hometown – required you to read and annotate two novels every summer while school was out. This means that I annotated more than a dozen books before I graduated and started uni.

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And then I never annotated a book again because, to be completely honest, I hate it.

My handwriting never looks right. I always mess up the color coding at least once. Either the book spines or the highlights were always crooked. Annotating was an absolute nightmare for my little book loving and OCD self.



“Then why are you writing an entire article on how annotating makes your writing better?”

Because, unfortunately for me, it does make your writing better.

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Sort of like how running can improve your cardiovascular health, but absolutely sucks. And like someone who hates running, but knows it’s healthy for them will teach other people that it’s okay to hate running and do it anyway, I’m here to teach you that it’s okay to hate annotating and do it anyway.


The Anti-Annotator



Although I can’t speak for every anti-annotator, I know that many of us struggle to annotate for two reasons:

  1. It’s really, really hard to find something to annotate when I usually completely turn my brain off to properly enjoy and really feel what I’m reading so I need to choose between enjoyment or annotations.
  2. Annotations are permanent which means I can’t change my mind or redo them or make them better and I have a hard enough time choosing which temporary tattoos I want to use.

These are definitely the biggest problems for me, and the problems I have spent the last two years finding ways to circumvent. Because, even though I don't want to admit it, I can hate annotating all I want and it doesn’t make it any less effective in improving my writing.

Which is actually where the anti-annotator lesson starts. Why does annotating improve your writing?

The answer is close reading. Annotating encourages close reading and close reading helps writers to pick out writing tactics and methods they want to replicate themselves.


Over Annotation Effect

And the answer to why it improves your writing is somehow also the first problem. Close reading leaves me feeling like I’m so busy trying to find a way to improve my writing that I’m not enjoying or even digesting what I’m reading.

I like to call this catch-22 the “Over Annotation Effect.” I get so wrapped up in annotating that I don't feel like I’m reading anymore. I feel like I’m working.

I combat this by dramatically simplifying how and what I annotate.

I was taught that annotations are only effective if you have a color-coded system, several categories of things you’re looking for, and a quota of highlights per page. And I was a full grown adult before I realized that my teachers cared way more about the amount of time I put into annotating a book than how effective those annotations actually were.



Is this GIF directed at my own naivety or the state of the education system? The world may never know.

In any case, it was freeing to realize that time and color-coding and multiple categories and number of highlights wasn’t necessary to annotate in a way that could help me improve my writing. But it also left a void where I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. If I wasn’t specifically looking for character development or interesting stylistic choices, how would I know when to highlight something??

After asking myself this question on repeat for a half dozen books, I realized I would know what to highlight because it would make me pause.

Have you ever read a line and needed a second to process the beauty of what your eyes just witnessed? Highlight it. What about a bit of dialogue that made you kick your feet like you were fifteen and being asked out by your crush? Highlighter, baby. Those moments where you had to reread what you just read not because your eyes skipped over the words but because they hit you right in the heart? JUST MARK IT.

Annotating stopped pausing my reading when I started highlighting what made me pause and then kept reading.


Fear of Permanency

So make it un-permanent.

In a moment of clarity that rivaled a therapist telling you something that really should have been common sense but you were too deep into the over-thinking spiral to realize it, I realized that annotations didn’t need to be permanent.

And all it took was COVID shutting down all my local bookstores and finally, reluctantly, giving up my deep need for a shelf trophy out of desperation for a new book and then accidentally creating – and intentionally erasing – a highlight in the ebook I’d bought.

Annotations that were temporary? Amazing. Beautiful. I’d never considered such a thing was possible.

Now, ebooks have worked wonders for me and I read them more than physical books now, but I also still appreciate having a physical book to flip through – especially if it’s a craft book. 

Until this little discovery, I would keep a notebook by my side as I read craft books and note down quotes and thoughts that I had as I read. But upon realizing that annotations should be nonpermanent, and a quick internet search, I started using transparent sticky notes to highlight passages and write notes without permanently marking the shelf trophy.




Can I digitally anti-annotate without an e-reader?


Whether Kindle, AppleBooks, Libby, or another app, there are plenty of reading apps that support highlights! I only use an e-reader because my children are less likely to steal it than a phone.

And while anti-annotating is easiest for me to do electronically because it completely removes any complications my OCD presents, but you can also anti-annotate a physical book. 


What sort of stationery do you use when anti-annotating a physical book?

I use the yellow Bic highlighters (the perfect mix of cheap and effective for me), whatever clear, transparent sticky notes are on sale on Amazon because I haven't noticed a big difference between brands, and a mechanical pencil because my favorite pen was discontinued by Bic and I want to avoid that heartbreak again.


What sort of notes should I include in annotations?

Simple and to the point notes are best! No more than a dozen words. I still keep longer thoughts in an annotation journal instead of the margins of the book! Mostly so that I can actually read them later.


How do I decide what's important enough to highlight?

Trust your instincts and just do it. 

I just stick with whatever resonates with me!


Elizabeth Miles
Written for The Plottery

I’m Elizabeth Miles, but you can call me Lizzie! I am a full-time stay-at-home mom and part-time author during breaks from chasing down over-confident toddlers. Mystery, romance, and fantasy are my favorite genres for both reading and writing. You can find me on Instagram (@authorlizziem) and TikTok (@authorlizziemiles)!



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