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GUIDE: How to annotate a non-fiction book4 min read

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annotateI have read and annotated my books for a long time, but I have always subconsciously been unhappy with the system I developed. So I’ve done some research, and come up with the following system. Feel free to comment on your own system.

1. Running Page Headers

One of the things I love about the Table of Contents of some old books is that they include detailed descriptive section headers, and those section headers often adorn the top of the pages. Some bibles use this same method to help you scan pages for specific content (Figure  1 below).

This same method can help you return to a book you notated months or years ago and find the content you are looking for.

2. Vertical Importance Lines

I prefer these to mere underlining, for a couple of reasons:

  • You can more easily highlight longer passages, less ink on the page, and no having to be so careful to draw straight lines
  • It allows you to indicate the level of importance you assign to the passage via the number of lines you use (1 = good, 2 = very good, 3 = awesome!)

3. Underlining / Highlighting

There are still some times when you want to highlight individual sentences or words, even if you are using vertical lines on the side. For example, whenever I find a word I need to look up, I underline it.

I prefer underlining to highlighting, again, for a few reasons (YMMV):

  • No need to have a second writing implement (or more if you want to use various colors)
  • There is no need for color unless you have some color code in mind, but I find margin codes much more useful than a color code, you are not limited to your color pallete, which will max out based on how many colored pens you have at your immediate disposal.
  • Often, highlighted passages come out dark or black when copied

4. Margin Codes

Margin codes are one of your most powerful annotation tools. You can make an endless list of attributes, they are somewhat self explanatory (unlike a color coded highlight system that forces you to have a color legend), and they have a small footprint. Also, such text-based indicators are searchable in some PDF annotation programs if you are reading a soft copy.

Margin Codes I use (always being simplified and improved) include the following:

  • 1,2,3: Numbered lists noting progressive or itemized ideas in the text
  • AN: Anecdote, a nice verbal illustration or story
  • BIO: Biographical reference
  • BK: Book, a book is mentioned
  • CS!: Controversial Statement, a radical or controversial statement
  • DEF: Definition, either a definition is provided, or needs to be looked up
  • FCT: Important fact or data
  • FP: Foundational Principle, I come upon these often in Theological and Philosophic works
  • HIST: Historical Reference
  • LA: Logical Argument
  • NS: Non Sequitur
  • QS: Question
  • QT: Quotation, a quote you might like to reference later
  • REF: External Reference
  • SUM: Summary

5. Endpage Notes

When you want to make some extended thoughts, you have a few choices:

  • Separate Notebooks: This gives you unending space, but good luck keeping the notebooks organized and near your book.
  • Blog Notes: Yes, you can actually blog your notes, just be sure to include page numbers. You’ll always have the internet, right? This works for both electronic and paper books, it’s essentially an electronic Separate Notebook
  • Electronic Notes: If you are annotating on a Kindle or PDF annotator, you can keep extended notes in the book. This, of course, won’t work for paper books.
  • Endpage Notes: If you don’t intend on writing a book of your own, you can make some extended notes on the inside of the front and back covers. Just be sure to include page numbers.


That’s my method. I am currently looking into annotation programs for the iPad, I have to say, the Kindle app is not very good at annotation, but there are some PDF annotation apps that look promising, though each seems to lack at least one key feature. I’ll let you know what I find out.

FIGURE 1: Running Page Headers in a Bible