Annotation & Critical Reading

Chapter One: Annotation and Critical Reading

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.

— Tim Parks, “A Weapon for Readers

In college you will encounter demanding texts of great complexity. You will be asked to engage these texts critically and to challenge the thinking and conclusions of others. You will also have to retain an extraordinary amount of information and recall it later. To thrive in this environment you will need to develop some new habits and strategies. The most basic, and most important, of these are a formal procedure for the annotation of texts and the creation of critical summary notes.

Annotating texts

Analysis involves breaking an argument down into smaller parts so that you can understand how those parts work together to make the whole. The best way to begin the process of analysis is to annotate texts as you read them by using a system of symbols and marginal notes made on the document itself. There is no right or wrong way to mark up a text, but you should develop a system that you are comfortable with and try to stick with it. Writing while you read will help you stay focused and read critically. In fact, I would argue that if you are not writing while you read—by putting it into your own words through annotation, summary, paraphrase, and quotation—then you are not reading critically at all.

Your objective in annotation is to flag the key elements of a piece of writing—such as the thesis, claims, reasons, and key pieces of evidence. This kind of work serves two purposes. First, it helps you maintain a critical focus as you read. Second, it helps you later if the text must be used for study or your own writing.

During my annotations I always flag a number of things. I underline the thesis once I find it and I place large dots next to claims that are being used to support the thesis. I always place keywords or a short statement next to each paragraph, aiming to create a “micro summary” of the content. I use check marks or exclamation points next to statements that I find important or noteworthy. Sometimes I draw arrows or reference other page numbers to connect parts of an essay that seem related to me in some way.

In addition to flagging and summarizing a text’s key ideas, claims, and arguments, I also ask questions in the margins or note places where I become confused. This is helpful later, on my second reading, since I can pay more careful attention to the passages that gave me trouble. I also write my thoughts as they occur to me and state objections to things that seem problematic or wrongheaded. Sometimes I try to connect an idea in one text with the idea(s) in another text I have read. Making these sorts of connections is a central feature of the kind of thinking and writing you will do in college.

As you can see from the example page below, the process of annotation keeps me engaged, active, and alert—key components in critical thinking.

The false allure of the highlighter

Students often associate critical thinking and a general studiousness with the use of a highlighter. However, I’d like to question this practice a bit. Compare the following selection from a student’s course reading to the annotation practices outlined above:

There are a number of problems worth noting here about the practice of highlighting while reading:

  • First, your objective when you read something should be to avoid having to read it again (unless, of course, you would enjoy doing so). Highlighting important portions of a text, as this student has done, only signals that the highlighted bits were important to the reader at the time of the reading. But to discover why they are important or what the highlighted portions mean, the student will be forced to read the text again. Busy students studying for multiple midterms do not have time to re-read entire books or articles.

  • Secondly, highlighting works against critical thinking by casting the reader in the passive role of information consumer. As Keith Hjortshoj argues, highlighting merely “emphasizes the authority of the text: what its author says, believes, or knows. The practice therefore leads you toward memorization and repetition, not toward interpretation, inquiry, or criticism” (41). While recalling information at a later time is important, this is not the sole purpose of reading. Critical reading also involves a process of evaluating, questioning, and interpreting the text—activities that highlighting actively resists.

  • Thirdly, highlighting doesn’t help you place the information into your long-term memory. Recent research suggests that taking notes by hand results in a significant boost to information retention.

  • Finally, highlighting doesn’t help you understand the structure of an argument—the main goal of any critical analysis. Arguments all have a certain structure: there is a main idea supported by a series of claims, reasons, and pieces of supporting evidence. The highlighter fails to reveal this structure. Flagging key structural features of arguments (as described above in the process of annotation) will dramatically reduce the time it takes to study and will be of significant help in your writing as you make use of the texts in question.

Annotation strategies

Since you have likely never engaged a text in such a manner, here are some strategies that you might consider as you develop a process for annotation and critical reading:

  • Use a symbol system. Develop a system of symbols to flag important aspects of a reading. Mark significant elements within the text such as the thesis, argumentative claims, and evidence. Also note when a text references other texts, authors, or events. Note places where you become confused or uncertain; later, in a second reading, you can give extra attention to these portions of the text.

  • Interrogate the text. Be ruthless. Be rigorous. Ask questions back to the author in the margins of the text. Challenge the conclusions and arguments that he or she presents by making ones of your own.

  • Summarize. Write keywords or make “microsummaries” in the margins next to each paragraph. Later, you will not have to re-read the entire document to find your place. These can be especially useful if you later use this text in your own writing.

  • Connect. Find connections between the reading and others within the course or your broader reading experience. Develop the capacity to bring other texts into dialogue with each other, imagining writing and reading as a form of social interaction.