Systems for Writing in Your Books

So if you still are resisting the idea of writing in your books, see my previous blog post “10 Reasons to Write in Your Books.”

Now here’s some tips on how to annotate your books in a way that will best serve you for the long haul.

Here’s Tony Reinke’s advice from Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading Books.

Consider your goal: Most of my book scribbles accomplish one of three goals:

  1. to highlight what I appreciate
  2. to trace the structure of the book
  3. to critique what I don’t appreciate

First, highlighting what you appreciate can literally mean highlighting, but as Reinke notes, highlighting can fade over the years. So alternatively, Reinke says:

“I underline it with a pen (for a brief quotation), or I run a vertical line down the outside margin of the page alongside the text (for paragraphs). I run a single vertical line for selections that are very important and a double vertical line for selections that are critically important. When I flip through a previously read book, these highlights should be the most obvious markings. I draw these lines thick and bold.”

Personally, I don’t like to waste time highlighting or even marking lines in the margin. My preference comes from a book I once read on speed reading. The author argued that all you need is a light pen mark beside the start of the line that is of important. Its surprising how easily a small pen dot stands out in the margin of a book. Then on your second reading, put a second mark beside every dot you found interesting the first time you looked at the book. The more dots, the more important the passage. Besides this, I will usually bracket the quote, and use the dot as an anchor, since often the brackets are hard to see. When I’m in the right mood I will write a word or two beside the dot, or a “cf. page __” to help me quickly understand why I marked that passage. Other times I will substitute a small star for the dot–I seem to find drawing a little star more gratifying than a single dot. Here’s an example from a book I’m currently reading.

Second, to trace the structure of the argument you can follow several strategies. Reinke says:

Publishers are especially gcnerous with all the white space on the first page of a chapter. That space is perfect for tracking chapter development. There I can connect the small details of a chapter together into a visual linear progression. As I progress through the chapter. I jot little summary phrases on that first page and connect them with arrows to note the progress from one idea to another. This is especially helpful when I cannot complete a chapter in a single sitting.

Additionally, some people recommend writing in the top margin of each page to explain what the main point of that page is. For me that is a little too extreme, but I do love taking advantage of the blank pages at the beginning and end of books, which are perfect for helping track the author’s ideas which are most important to you. I love to use the back pages to create my own index of whatever matters to me at the moment. We all read for different reasons, so don’t be afraid to document what will support your particular angle. Here’s a picture of my homemade index from Treasury of David by Charles Spurgeon, which I am currently working through:

By the time I finish this book, both sides of the page will likely be packed, and my research interests may even change by the time I finish this book. Thus, I can’t imagine any two people creating an identical index, so use whatever system works for you. I have actually found this practice to be the most helpful for quickly finding things I want to use in future classes or sermons.

The third and final goal for writing in your books is to critique what you don’t appreciate. As Reinke says, “Active readers must not become cynics, but they must be critics. A reader with a pen in hand is ready to read critically. Open to new discoveries? Yes. But always wielding biblically-sharpened discernment. Identifying the lowlights in a book is my means of drawing attention to sections or arguments that” (I have abridged the following points):

  • Appear to be wrong.
  • Lack collaborative evidence, substance, and persuasion.
  • Lack biblical support for the claim.
  • Recycle points from earlier in the book.

I have often found that a frowning face works best to quickly express my dissatisfaction.

Do you have any other systems or suggestions for recording what is valuable in a book? Let us know in the comments.

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