How Much Does Annotating Help You Remember What You Read?

River H. Kero

Staff Writer

River Kero (he/him) is a queer Canadian artist who has just graduated with a BFA and lives in Vancouver, BC. His practice consists mostly of graphic novel work, scriptwriting, prose, and illustration. He lives with his younger brother, their dog Pogo, and his cat Matilda.

I, like most of you I’m sure, associate annotation with school. You might think of studying in the lecture hall, late-night cram sessions, or reading and rereading an assigned text over and over again.

However, annotation is an incredibly useful tool. Before we dive in, here is a brief clarification on annotating versus note taking. For some, the difference is negligible, therefore the research significantly overlaps. The general consensus is that annotation takes place on the page of the book and directly interacts with the text.

The Science of Annotating

According to research, annotation helps with memory, comprehension, and overall understanding for what you read. The thinking behind this conclusion is that annotating the text takes effort and forces you to interact with it physically. Rather than just taking the information in and letting it wash over you, you form new pathways in your brain by encoding the text. The simple act of writing your notes in the first place helps you remember what you read. Although, it does help to have the information on hand to go back to later.

On top of writing, the idea of adding visuals to your annotations helps to improve memory. Having colours, doodles, and sketches added to your notes has been shown to help with memory retention. The term for this is Sketchnoting. Perhaps drawing doodles in your books could be Sketchannotating? Sketch-a-noting?

Methods of Annotation: Do Any Work Better?

There are many different ways to annotate your books. But are any of these techniques proven to work better than others?

As expected, the answer is “it depends,” because it’s ultimately up to what works best for you. That said, it’s less about what you’re doing and more about how you do it. One of the powers of note taking is that when you copy out what you read or hear, it forces you to summarize the ideas in your mind. When annotating, physically writing your thoughts, ideas, or reactions on the margins is going to help the information stick the best. You don’t have to write a lot for this to work. It’s typically better if you keep it short!

Overall, the thing to keep in mind is that it is your interaction with the text that fixes the information in your memory. Mindlessly marking up a book won’t help unless you know what it is you’re looking for.

Annotation for Nonfiction vs. Fiction Books

When we typically think about annotating what we read, it’s natural to think of a dense, heavy nonfiction textbook. Highlighting text can help you pick out important passages when flipping back through the book. Separate notes can help you remember your ideas.

Does this process differ at all when it comes to fiction books or reading for pleasure? The answer lies in what your purpose for annotating is. Are you doing it to remember what you are thinking or feeling at the time of reading? Or is it to remember specific characters or plots?

For the most part, there isn’t an obvious difference between annotating a fiction versus nonfiction book. However, what you choose to annotate is likely going to be a little different. You might want to highlight themes, symbols, turning points, elements of plot structure, plot theories, character introductions, important places, etc.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your comments may change depending on genre. In my own books, I rarely write comments on pulpy romance besides little heart doodles. For something more intensive, I may take guesses at where the story is going or try to define where we are at in a three-act structure.

Annotation Tips and Tricks

A question to ask yourself if you’re interested in annotation is simply, am I okay marking up books? If you like doodling in your paperbacks, by all means go for it. No judgement! However, if you don’t want to mark up your expensive one-of-a-kind copy of Pride and Prejudice, you are fully justified in that.

For those of you who don’t want to draw in your books, I recommend using removable sticky notes, a bookmark you can write on, a separate handwritten notebook, or your phone or computer. I use Notion both to track my books and to keep in-depth notes. Keep in mind that handwritten notes have better staying power than typing ones, but typing your notes means you can record your thoughts on an audiobook while you listen. Additionally, some ereader apps such as Kindle and Kobo allow you to highlight what you read.

Here are some final tips and tricks:

  1. Ask questions of the text. Why is this important? How does this relate to that? In this way, annotating is like talking to the book.
  2. Don’t annotate meaninglessly. Highlighting an entire page is less helpful than highlighting one sentence.
  3. Draw, if you feel inclined. Cute doodles, emoji reactions, or circling text can all be helpful.
  4. Note things that are important. This can include new words, repeating concepts, themes that are recurring, stuff to look up later, etc.
  5. Add personal responses. This is your book (unless it’s a library copy, then maybe stick to a separate piece of paper); your opinions are invaluable.
  6. You can mix and match techniques. You can highlight, make a key with symbols, use tabs, or just write. There is no wrong way to do it!

And have fun!