Annotating your novel -- what that actually means

Annotations are essential when it comes to senior-level English. In this article, we go through exactly how to perfect this art - from what annotating is, to why it is so important.

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By KIS Academics
Photo by Salomé Watel / Unsplash

Preparing for senior level English can be tricky, especially when it comes to starting which involves several hurdles including reading and annotating your set text! Texts are often very dense and can be difficult to pick apart – especially if they are as lengthy as a novel. When you are asked to ‘annotate your novel’ , you may not know how or where to start, so here is a quick guide to help you annotate your English novel in the most efficient way possible so that you not only understand your content, but perhaps enjoy your text!

What does ‘annotate’ mean?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, annotating is “to add a short explanation or opinion to a text or image.” But, what does this really mean?! How do you take this definition and utilise it to annotate your own English text – in specific – a novel. Annotating a text in the context of high school English involves a few things – carefully reading your set text, taking note of the key themes and ideas present in your text, and taking note of small passages (with literary and form techniques) which allow your text to convey meaning. These notes can be inside the novel itself, or on a separate document if you prefer to keep your books untouched by pen, pencil and scribbles! Ensure that these notes are well thought out, in depth and not only contain your personal opinion, but the relation of your chosen section of the text to the themes and concepts of the novel itself.

A good time to annotate your novel

You may be wondering – when do you begin to annotate a novel – when do you even start!? Well, it is always a good idea to start taking note of phrases or lines that spark your interest the first time you’re reading your novel! If you can’t seem to find any on the first read, that’s completely fine! No need to fret! After reading and digesting your novel for the first time, take some time to read through your novel again and highlight points that you believe will be of importance to the themes and ideas you will focus on during your study.

How do you know what to annotate?  

When reading a large text such as a novel, everything may seem as important as the other and it can be difficult to differentiate between what the most important sections are that need to be annotated. If you are struggling to find the most important pieces of information look for the following attributes in your quotes:

  • A mid length: you want to make sure that the quotes that you are taking notes of are of a ‘medium’ length – not too long that it takes up many sentences and not too short that it is only a few words. The quote that you choose should have enough content for it to be able to be well analysed, without it being too lengthy!
  • Captures the key themes of the text: in addition to your quotes being a good length, they should contain some important ideas that you can pull apart in the responses you use them in. For example, it’s probably not the best idea to choose a quote that reads along the lines of ‘Jane spoke to her mother’ as it doesn’t have any concept or idea that may add to the main themes talked about in your text. On the other hand, a better option for a quote might be ‘mine would sir, were I human’ (from Margaret Atwood’s ‘HagSeed’). The quote reflects something deeper about human nature and how we may become clouded by our own selfish desires (in the context of the novel of course), and can be analysed in great depth in terms of themes present in the novel.
  • Contains a variety of literary techniques: The analysis present in your English responses will often consist of the effect of various literary techniques present in the quote that you choose. In order to give yourself a variety of room to talk about the big ideas present in your novel, it is important that you choose quotes that have identifiable literary techniques! An example of this might be in ‘Why does it (revenge) feel like a letdown?’ (from Margaret Atwood’s ‘HagSeed’) which features the following techniques; rhetorical question and limited narrator.
  • Comes from throughout the novel: it is probably not the best idea to isolate your quotes from one section of the novel as generally, you will find that the ideas and characters within the text progress until the very end, and you may be limiting your responses if you choose to pick quotes from let’s say – just the middle of the text!
  • Includes a variety: The last point to help you pick out points and quotes to annotate is to choose a variety of different quotes – dialogue, form techniques and more!

Drawing conclusions on the material you’ve collected

Now, you may have a wonderfully annotated copy of your novel, but what do you do with all the information that you’ve collected? It’s of importance that you take the time to reflect upon all of the annotations you’ve made in your novel – how do they connect, do they show character development, do they reflect a bigger, universal idea, do they explore a key element of your English syllabus… These questions, though small, will start a train of thought that will make it easier to take all of the hard work you completed annotating your novel, and transferring it to a well written analytical response such as those you have to complete in English.

Why does it all matter?

Spending time annotating and reflecting upon a set text for English can often be a lengthy process, and at times, students find themselves wondering why they even do it – what is the point!? Well, to help answer this question, and perhaps instil some motivation to look through that set novel that’s been sitting on your bedside table, I’ll leave you with a final point. Though analysing a highschool English text might seem pointless at times, it teaches you a very important skill – critical analysis and thinking – and like Albert Einstein once said “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”.

Written by KIS Academics Tutor for HSC maths advanced and extension 1, Yasmin Hasan. Yasmin is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Psychology (Hons) at UNSW and has received stellar reviews from her past KIS Academics students. You can view Yasmin’s profile here and request her as a tutor.

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