I started annotating books in 2018, when my then-manager started a team “book club” to discuss Conscious Business. I did not love the book, but ever the
teacher’s pet overachiever, I told myself I was going to read my manager’s bible the book thoroughly, so I brought out the highlighters and the post its.
Annotating has helped me slow down and deliberately read passages in the book. Sometimes when I read too quickly, I forget details, even if I previously thought they were enlightened when I read them. Marking up such passages helps me remember them and find them easily.
I have a five-level system for my annotations. (Don’t be overwhelmed by the number.) Each level has a purpose, and, depending on the book, I don’t even use all five. Check out my IGTV post, Book Talk – How I Annotate, for a video run-through of my system.
My Annotation System
- L1: Highlights – For any passage that interests me.
- L2: Flags – For a passage I feel I’ll want to come back to. Not all highlights need to be flagged, especially since some ideas tend to be repeated on the same chapter. I highlight multiple passages, even if they pertain to the same idea, but I only flag the passage with the strongest or most complete points.
- L3: Post Its – For discussions over multiple paragraphs or pages, I summarize the idea on a post it, which I stick to the most relevant page. These are usually bigger concepts or processes that a single flag cannot highlight effectively.
- L4: Note Cards – For my opinions or insights. Sometimes I don’t completely agree with an idea, or I have a real-life application for an idea… I jot those down on note cards to separate them from the author’s ideas.
- L5: Summary on Notebook – For easy referencing, I summarize the book’s main points on a separate notebook. The summary can go from a single page to three depending on how many new ideas I gained from the book. As I write the summary, I revisit my L1, L2, and L3 notes. Since this is a summary of concepts from the book, I do not incorporate my L4 notes here.
I keep my L5 notes on a separate notebook with all my other L5 notes/book summaries. I look at this notebook when I want to review concepts on a high level and across different books. Often I use this to figure out where I had previously read about some idea. When I want to revisit ideas specific to a book, I take the book from my shelf and skim through my L1, L2, L3, and L4 notes.
As an avid reader, I believe that annotation is a very personal endeavor. Everyone has his or her own style. Reading a book that has been annotated by someone else is incredibly distracting (trust me—I used hand-me-down textbooks in school and had a difficult time coming up with my own insights), so if you do annotate a book, it is yours forever. Please don’t unload a marked up book on some unsuspecting reader and involve yourself in his or her reading experience.
To date, I’ve annotated only nine books (plus two other books I’ve stuck flags on). All of them nonfiction and none memoirs. To be specific, I only annotate nonfiction books that I read with the full intention of learning and retaining information. Memoirs and casual reads do not get annotated, as I prefer to keep my books pristine. (None of the books on my fiction shelf have been marked nor flagged! I love to lend my books out, and I even sell some books to declutter. Most of all, I want to keep my collection in a library and have these books read by generations to come.)
List of Books I’ve Annotated
- Conscious Business
- Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager (my thoughts)
- The Lean Startup (my thoughts)
- Inspired (my thoughts)
- Atomic Habits (my thoughts)
- Agile Innovation (my thoughts)
- Crossing the Chasm (my thoughts)
I came up with my annotation system organically, and I solidified it only on my fifth attempt. I started off with highlighting and flagging—even writing summaries here and there—but I didn’t realize until the fifth book that I had my own opinions. Should you start annotating your books, don’t overthink it. Do what works for you and iterate from there.