Annotating and taking notes from literature is an essential skill for students. In today’s super duper long post, I will attempt to answer the questions: “What’s the best method for taking notes from a novel?” and “What the heck am I supposed to write anyway?” Let’s dive right in.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
A copy of the book
Even if your school lets you borrow copies of the assigned novels, I’d highly recommend buying your own cheap copy from Amazon. I love the freedom that comes with being able to mark up the text and margins as I wish. Plus, I usually enjoy all the novels we study, so it’s nice to have my own copy that I can read again and again. If you don’t have the means to purchase your own copy though, use sticky notes and page flags to make notes while keeping your book clean.
A standard pencil or black pen
I use this for all of my original thoughts— questions, reactions, responses, analyses, etc.
Highlighters and/or colored pens
I use these to indicate important quotes and descriptions, themes, symbols, and other literary devices (more on those later). You can be general or very specific with your color-coding system, depending on how many colors you have. For example, you can mark all the symbols with one color and all the themes with another, or you can dedicate one color to tracking one specific, prominent symbol throughout the book. But don’t go crazy with an entire rainbow— try to limit yourself to 3-5 distinct colors max. When you’re pressed for time and frantically flipping back through your book, I can guarantee that you’re not going to be able to differentiate between Baby Pink and Cotton Candy Coral.
Page flags or sticky notes
As stated, these are essential if you’re not allowed to write in your book. I also use them to mark sections of text that are too large to be highlighted or underlined.
Sometimes I need to make a note or response that’s too long to be crammed into the margins. In these cases, I’ll take out an index card and write my thoughts there. Make sure to also write the page number and passage/paragraph you’re talking about so you can flip back to that section later.
Pretty self-explanatory. Chances are that you’re going to encounter some unknown words, especially if your novel is set in a different time period.
Always, always keep in mind the task at hand. Every teacher is different, and your teacher might need you to pick up on aspects of the novel that this guide won’t cover. Plan accordingly and adjust your technique to suit your unique end goals. Your note-taking needs will change depending on whether you’ll be writing an essay, presenting a book report, participating in a class discussion, or doing something else entirely after you’ve finished taking notes.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
If you’re studying literature in high school or beyond, the focus is usually more on analysis and less on summary, so don’t spend too much time trying to memorize all the itty bitty plot details. I usually draw a quick story mountain, scribble down what happened next to each part of the story, include page numbers for extremely important events, and call it a day. My notes on the plot are solely for refreshing my memory and helping me find sections of the book; I focus 90% of my attention on actually analyzing the literature using the other tips in this section.
My English teacher once told us, “The first sentence about a character often tells you everything you need to know about him or her.”
Example: Here’s the first time Atticus Finch is mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:
“We were far too old to settle an argument with a fist fight, so we consulted Atticus. Our father said we were both right.”
Yes, Atticus’s character does continue to develop throughout the novel, but these two sentences really capture the essence of who he is. He’s the calm voice of intelligence and reason, the opposite of physical violence. He is diplomatic and just, able to understand both sides of a conflict. His children call him by his first name, showing that he regards them as equals. These traits define him as a character, influence his actions for the rest of the book, and are all revealed in just the first two sentences.
Most of the time, you won’t even realize how meaningful or prophetic an introduction is until much later in the story. But if you’re looking for a character’s important traits, his/her introductory sentence is a great place to start.
As the story progresses, identify the main characters’ traits, how they change and grow, and the plot events that cause these changes.
Common ways for characters to develop include:
- gaining/losing morality
- coming of age
- falling from grace
- challenging the status quo
- overcoming an obstacle
- becoming empowered
- discovering him/herself
And some common catalysts for those kinds of development are:
- shouldering newfound responsibility
- gaining/losing power, wealth, knowledge, abilities (i.e. superpowers)
- being prematurely exposed to a great challenge
- gaining/losing an influential person/thing
- transitioning into a new place or new stage in life
Themes are the central, underlying ideas behind a piece of work. They are the messages the author wants you, the reader, to take away. To identify the themes, ask yourself, “What is the author trying to express about the human condition?” Topics that fall under the “human condition” umbrella include:
- race, sex, and class
- lust and temptation
However, the words listed above are not themes. They are merely topics, aspects of humanity that authors frequently comment on, and any two authors can present the same topic completely differently. On the other hand, themes are complete statements– they cannot be expressed in a single word. In order for the topics above to become themes, they must be attached to some sort of insight into human life or experience.
Example 1: “Temptation” is a topic.
“Giving into temptation often results in tragedy” is a theme.
Example 2: “Societal class” is a topic.
“People’s accomplishments define who they are, not their position in society” is a theme in Harry Potter.
“You are who you’re born, and attempting to move between classes is futile” is a theme in The Great Gatsby.
As you can see, this is a case where two novels take the same topic and turn it into two opposing themes.
As you read, track the development of themes and the events the author uses to convey them.
Simply put, symbols are things that represent other things. They function to add a profound, figurative layer of meaning above the literal one. Symbols could include objects, actions, colors, weather, seasons, you name it. Common symbols include (the things they frequently represent are in parentheses):
- red (love, passion)
- doves (peace)
- fork in the road (decisions)
- storms (turmoil, conflict)
- seeds (hope, new life)
- chains (repression, burden)
- springtime (youth, rebirth)
- nighttime (death, fear)
Of course, not all symbols are so obvious and cliché. Deciphering symbolism in literature often takes much more thought.
Examples: Mockingbirds in To Kill a Mockingbird symbolize innocent people.
The green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes an unattainable dream.
Fire and ice imagery in Jane Eyre symbolize the struggle between passion and authority.
As you read your novel, identify the symbols, note when they occur, and reflect on the meaning they add to the story.
Diction & Syntax
Diction and syntax are closely related. Diction is the choice of words an author uses in a particular situation. Syntax is how the author arranges those words into sentences and paragraphs. Together, syntax and diction serve to add emphasis onto certain ideas and artistic effect. Choosing to use one word instead of another might add a nuance that changes the tone of the scene. Inverted word order may stress one particular word over another one.
Example: This is the first sentence of To Kill a Mockingbird (which, if you hadn’t noticed by now, happens to be my favorite book):
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
Your diction and syntax alarm should’ve started blaring as soon as you read that. Something sounds off, right? The phrase “got his arm broken” is weird. If Jem fell from a tree or crashed his bike, wouldn’t it say he “broke his arm”? Why the use of passive voice? In this case, the way the sentence is phrased implies that Jem’s injury was no accident– something else, an outside force, broke his arm. Which, if you’ve read the book, is exactly what happens. To astute readers, the climax of the novel is actually foreshadowed in the very first sentence. That’s the power of diction and syntax.
Identifying diction and syntax usage is tricky, but it’s especially difficult in plays, poems, and old books. After all, every Victorian novel sounds weird and every Shakespearean play is nearly incomprehensible to begin with. But if a sentence or passage sounds overly descriptive, stilted, or just plain awkward within the rest of the text, it’s probably worth making a note of the diction and/or syntax.
As you read, mark important uses of diction and syntax and identify what meanings or nuances they contribute.
THE NOTE-TAKING PROCESS
So you’ve gathered your supplies, reviewed your assignment, and understood what you need to look out for while reading. Now to tie it all together, I’m going to run through my entire process of taking notes from a novel, from start to finish.
- Get through the exposition, where the main characters and setting are introduced (usually the first 1-2 chapters), before even picking up a pen. Trying to keep track of new names, new places, and a dozen language devices all at once is much too overwhelming. Familiarize yourself with the basics of the story, then go back to take notes on the first couple chapters.
- Along the same lines, read and take notes in chunks. Don’t read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence, put down your book, write a note, pick up your book, read a sentence. Your attention will be constantly diverted and you’ll interrupt the natural flow of reading. Try to take notes at the end of each scene, act, event, flashback, chapter, or other natural structural element. It’ll be easier to identify what’s important when you have a bigger picture of things.
- When it’s time to take notes, use the margins or an index card and your pencil/black pen to define any unfamiliar words, write questions you need clarification on, or note any kind of prediction, inference, reaction, etc. At this stage, nobody else has to see anything you write, so go nuts. I’ve doodled hearts next to Mr. Darcy’s name in my copy of Pride and Prejudice and I’m not ashamed. Whatever helps you better understand the book and enjoy the reading process.
- If you come across a significant passage, description, or quote, leave a page flag there. Jot down a short note about why it’s important, but don’t worry too much about detailed analysis just yet.
- Using your colored pens/highlighters and whatever color-coding system you chose earlier, mark up all the examples of character traits and development, themes, symbols, diction, syntax, figurative language, and any other devices your teacher may require you to find. Beside each, write something straight-forward and concise to explain the effect that device has on the story.
- Any time you run out of room in the margins, grab an index card or sticky note and keep on groovin’.
- As stated earlier, adjust your note-taking to the requirements of your assignment. If you know you’ll have to write an essay specifically about character development once you finish this book, perhaps you could draw a chart on a separate piece of paper that has columns for each of the characters’ traits that you can fill in as they change.
- Finally, once you’ve finished the book, go back through your highlighting and page flags to pull out the information you need. If you followed this guide, you should have plenty of great examples to pick from. Use your margin notes and index cards to jumpstart your analysis and begin to put together your assignment or project in its final form.
And you’re finished!! *throws confetti*
I’m not even sure if this explanation of my note-taking process made sense outside of my head, so if you need further clarification or more examples of anything I mentioned, don’t hesitate to ask. And as always, this is just a summary of my personal technique, not a rock-hard set of rules. I highly encourage you to adjust and experiment. In fact, I’m really interested in learning about other people’s study methods, so reach out to me if you’d like to share your unique note-taking system or fangirl about books together.