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How to Annotate a Non-fiction Text

When you annotate non-fiction, you identify important information 
and record your ideas about its ideas, claims, and writing style. 

While annotating may seem like "extra work" and even unnecessary, 
here are some big payoffs:
  • annotation improves comprehension and writing;
  • it creates a virtual slideshow of information for later study that eliminates most rereading;
  • annotation promotes deeper reflection, analysis, and insight;
  • it helps you stay focused and makes reading more tangible and present

When do you annotate? 

The best time to annotate is when the reading's subject matter challenges or significantly expands what you already know.  
Avoid annotating ideas, concepts or information that are familiar or that you've mastered.

What should I annotate, and how should I do it? 

Whenever you underline something in the text, you should write something about it in the margin. 
Always use the same symbols (be consistent!) Use your own words (paraphrase). 

Annotation is an excellent and quick test of your understanding: If you can’t write it, you don’t understand it.

Job 1:
Find the author's biginsight about his topic and be able to articulate it.  

That big insight serves as the platform for everything else you annotate in the article.

Let's take a look at an example:

Article: "The Creative Personality"
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

After a couple of opening paragraphs that contextualize his topic and his own work in the field, he articulates his big insight about creativity:

If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it's complexity.  They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated.  They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an "individual," each of them is a "multitude."

Here are 10 antithetical traits often present in creative people that are integrated with each other in a dialectical tension.

In order to capture the author's big insight, you need to identify and use its key vocabulary; language is how we structure and express knowledge.  Make sure you define all unknown words so that you can move on to the next crucial step: make the big insight your own.

You should paraphrase the big insight.  Here's one attempt:

Creative people are complex because they exhibit a number of contradictions, opposing traits that work together in conversation with each other to fuel their creativity.

As you continue to read the article, your annotations should serve to illuminate and deepen this big insight.  Eventually, you will arrange those annotations on the platform created by this big insight.  

In other words, annotating is your way of deepening your understanding of the author's big insight.  Anything else is probably a waste of time.

Job 2:

Annotate different elements of the text:

Underline Topic Sentences that express focal idea for their paragraphs.  Then write in the margin a phrase that summarizes the paragraph.

Sometimes a sequence of paragraphs work together on one big idea, so feel free to bracket those paragraphs and summarize them as a group. 

Clarify the text's Structure by boxing groups of paragraphs or by outlining the text in the margin.  

Visually connect Related Ideas using lines, boxes, arrows.  If the related passages are on different pages, write "See page XX" next to each passage so that you can connect them.

Ask Questions raised by the text for which you don't know the answers.  Be curious, demanding, analytical.  Challenge the author's assertions.  

Make dynamic, fresh Connections between the text and your other academic work and books, current media, your experience and interests, your community.  

Underline the idea that you are “connecting” to and write the connection in the margin 

Write your Comments and Observations next to especially stimulating passages that cause you to have insights.  You can also note strong agreement or objection to the text.

Capture the author's specific Vocabulary/Terminology for the text.  Put a box around each specialized term, especially those that recur during the text.  Make sure you use the dictionary, writing the definition for each word on the page where it first appears.