My Guide to Annotating Books

If you’re anything like me, there’s a fat chance you’re not annotating your books, because you’re afraid it’s not going to look as pretty as it does in the pictures or you ARE annotating, but you’re not sure you’re doing it right. Most of the annotating guides I’ve ever read, were written by the kind of girls who write their homework in pink glittery gel pens with beautiful elaborate headers for every chapter and a handwriting that looks like it’s a font straight out of Word. That’s all great and very satisfying to look at, but for most people (including me) it’s a fantasy. If you recognise this, this guide is for you. I laid out a couple of simple steps to get you annotating in no time.

Step 1: What is your goal?

Obvious right? Maybe, but definitely important. The first time I started annotating I had no idea what I was doing or what my goal was. I just saw people annotate on Bookstagram and decided that I wanted to do that too. Now I realise that I spent a lot of time annotating the first halves of YA books that I am never going to read again and had no notable quotes whatsoever.

Before you start annotating, it is important to determine WHY you’re annotating. Do you want to understand the book better? Do you want to remember important information you’ve read? Do you plan on writing a review and want to mark the things you want write about? Annotating can be done in so many different ways and it’s important to determine your goal before you get started, so you can pick the right method that goes with that goal.

I annotate in different ways for various reasons. For instance:

  • When I do a buddy read, I use tabs to mark the pages I have to read per day;
  • When I read nonfiction, I highlight important information and then tab the page I highlighted, so I can find it easily;
  • I annotate classics like Jane Austen to understand what I’m reading a little better. I highlight beautiful quotes, write definitions to words I didn’t know in the margins and take notes on the story;
  • While reading Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie, I wrote down as much information as possible about the characters, because I wanted to find out who the killer was before Poirot did. It worked, though it took a lot of time and effort to compile files on all those suspects.
  • When I read the Harry Potter books for my rereading Harry Potter series, I tab anything I want to write about. Usually it’s not the most important parts of the story, but characters I forgot about or things that were left out of the movies.

Step 2: Determine how much time and effort you want to put into annotating

I’ve seen a lot of people on Booksta write entire summaries of every chapter they read on a post-it and sticking it in their books. People using glittery gel pens in all the colours of the rainbow, writing “wow!” and “huh?” and “I love this” in the margins or describing themes. If this is your thing, that’s wonderful, I admire your patience and discipline, but it really isn’t for me. If it’s not your thing either, that’s completely fine. If it is, great! There is no wrong way to annotate YOUR books. No wait, there is. If you’re not enjoying it, you’re doing it wrong. Which is why it is important to determine how much time you want to put into annotating. This can differ from day to day and from book to book, of course. I don’t spend any time annotating romance novels or Young Adult, for instance. I might highlight a quote or two or tab a really romantic scene, but I spend way more time annotating Sense and Sensibility. I look up the words I don’t know, write down important events, underline quotes I loved.

Most of the time, I start out annotating the crap out of a book and then after a few pages, I’m not feeling it anymore. I used to put the book down and return to it when I felt like annotating again, but that could usually take a couple of weeks.. I still have to finish The Twelve Dates of Christmas, because I annotated a lot in the first half of the book and then when I noticed how long it had taken me to get through the first half, I wasn’t feeling the second half anymore. Don’t be like me. Don’t get discouraged when you’re not feeling it anymore. Just dial down the annotating and carry on reading. Maybe it’s just not the kind of book that is worth annotating to you. If you’re annotating the wrong book (or the book wrong), it can really take all of the fun out of the book.

Step 3: Get your gear

Okay, so I’m a bit of an impulse buyer, so when I first decided that I wanted to start annotating my books, I bought every pretty pen I could find: pink, glittery, feathers on the back, erasable, scented, EVERYTHING! I did the same with post-its and tabs. I had every colour, shape, print. This may not come as a surprise, but the only stuff I use for annotating are: a pen (preferably black), a pencil, the simplest tabs available, a ruler, some blue post-its and an occasional highlighter. That’s a lot of money wasted on stuff I’m never going to use. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Unless you’re going for the flawless instagram aesthetic kind of annotating (which looks really pretty, but is really hard to maintain and takes a lot of time), I wouldn’t get too much stuff. Just start with the basics, see if that works for you and if you’re missing something, buy it.

Your gear may vary, depending on where you like to read. Some people like reading at a table or a desk, which means you can write relatively neatly and make neat lines. I personally like reading on the couch in a little cocoon, which is not the ideal position to write in. That’s why I write very little while annotating and when I do write, I do it in pencil, so that I can always erase it if it looks like it was written by a toddler. Highlighting quotes is also a little tricky, which is why I usually use a pencil and a ruler, so that I can still draw straight lines.

If you usually read library books, you can still annotate. I probably wouldn’t write in them, but you can still use post-its or a limited amount of tabs. If you’re afraid that you’re going to forget to take out your post-its, another option is to use loose pieces of paper. Just give the book a little shake and they will fall right out. That way you can still take notes for a review or buddy read.

If you’re more of a Kindle reader, you’ve got it especially easy. No gear necessary and you can just highlight sentences with your finger (on most e-readers anyway).

Step 4: Determine your key

If you’re going to use tabs or different coloured highlighters, you’re going to need a key. Otherwise you’re going to be looking for a romantic moment you loved, for instance, and looking through 100 tabs. If you determine before you start annotating that romantic moments=pink, you only have to comb through the pink tabs.

Your annotating key can differ from book to book or per goal. Naturally if you’re reading nonfiction, you’re not going to need a colour for romantic moments. Maybe you just need one colour for nonfiction books. Just find whatever works for you and try not to stick to a system that doesn’t work.

A little tip from me: write your key down somewhere. Numerous times have I come up with a key, only to get confused 5 minutes later and completely messing up. Most of my books are just tabs in random colours with no logic to them, because I didn’t write down my key.

Step 5: Read!

It’s go time! You’ve been reading about annotating long enough now, go pick up a book and go have fun. Your annotations don’t have to be perfect, they’re your books. Even if you’re a Bookstagrammer, I much prefer the messy, chaotic annotation pictures to the obsessively neat ones.

If you liked this guide, leave a comment or enter your email address to subscribe! Let me know if this guide helped you. I would love to hear from you. Happy reading!


  1. Great post! I like to annotate but I don’t buy a lot of books, so I use Kindle notes & highlights and it’s really convenient


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