I'll be taking my first college English class next semester and I'm really nervous. Any advice on what kinds of notes as should take as I read?


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You've received quite a bit of advice here, and the below responses illustrate one point very clearly: the best annotation method is unique to each individual. Since this is your first English class, consider experimenting with several methods. Do you prefer to highlight or to underline? Do you recall the text more accurately when you jot small notes in the margins, or do you fare better with sticky notes? Education is a process - what you learn in this class can inform your performance in the next.

Amy McElroy, Former Attorney, Writer, Editor, parent of a junior high and high school student

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So, you're getting a mix of advice here, and I say do both: highlight and write with pencil. The highlighter will help you find passages quickly and the pencil marks will tell you what you were thinking when you highlighted it.

It's important to understand what you are highlighting and why and what to write. When you write papers about these books, you will need quotations to back up your ideas. And you can't go back and re-read the whole book to find them. You won't have time! That's what you are highlighting. So, as you discuss the book in class and figure out what it's about and what is important--the themes and metaphors, etc.--that's what you are looking for in the book. Also, if the book just makes you think of a connection to your life, another book, history, or some current event, it's nice to include that in your notes. You never know when you might be able to include that in a paper. Once you decide on a thesis for your paper, it will become easier to annotate (highlight and write) in your book. The notes from class will supplement the notes in your book. Happy reading!

Anonymous, Former graduate student

My first advice would be to keep up with your reading. I've fallen behind with reading before and it only gets harder the more you fall behind. As far as taking notes while reading, I would say it depends on what your professor may be looking for. If the questions are only plot-related, I would take notes on any plot points that I think would be significant. However, being a college-level English class, your class may require a deeper level of analysis, including symbolism and themes. I would take note of any recurring themes, such as an object or color that keeps appearing and re-appearing. Character moods and dialogue would also be other topics to take note of. Finally, character intentions (going back to plot) would be another area that I would take notes on. I hope this helps and wish you the best of luck in your class!

Lisa Hiton, Professor of English and Arts, Poet, Filmmaker, Writer

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As you read, think about annotating in a way that helps you track your ideas and memories of the text. I must admit, in this sense, the highlighter is VERY important for myself and many of my students. If there is a passage of a text that resonates greatly, it might be worth highlighting in order to know where it is quickly. Especially when you're discussing a text in class or writing a paper later, it is useful to have your aces and wild cards at the ready. I usually advise my students who use a highlighter to only use it in the case of the main passages--I usually say no more than 10-12 passages should be worth a highlighter's mark.

In general, you might look at your syllabus and think of the main themes and questions your professor has pointed you toward. You might think of the main themes that the books present and use that as a guide for how to think of the texts, poems, criticisms, and art of the course. If the course is, for example, on Modernism, you might note what each text presents on ideas of war, mortality, and consciousness. What does the text say about nationality? What does it say about the role of art? Amid a time between wars? How do the collection of texts make a larger essay and raise questions about these themes? If you can gauge the basic themes and questions from the syllabus or from asking the professor during office hours, this will be a great reading guide, as well as excellent preparation for essay writing after finishing a text.

Colleen Clemens, College Professor, Writer, Editor, Tutor & Parent

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I love this question so much. I talk with my students about how to read actively all of the time!

First, if you are able to buy your books instead of rent them, do so. When you rent books, you cannot write in the texts.

Second, destroy all of your highlighters. I had a student make me a little wooden coffin for highlighters I was so adamant about my distaste for those bright contraptions. Highlighting is not engaging with the material--it is coloring it.

Finally, read with a PEN or PENCIL in your hand so you can make different types of notes. Don't understand something? Put a "?" next to it. Looked up a word? Define it in the margins. Think a quote is important? Underline it and then summarize it.

College is the time to up your annotation game. I wish you well! Happy annotating!

Carrie Hagen, Nonfiction Writer and Researcher, Teacher

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Barbara gives you excellent advice here. Here is another "tool" you might consider using: literary criticism. Go to the library databases accessible through your school (or browse through the library for critical books), and find one piece of criticism in which another analyzes what you are reading. Highlight and annotate that piece of criticism as Barbara suggests. Then, keeping that critic's thoughts in mind as you read your assigned text, do the same for that work. Considering whether or not you agree with the critic will give you something to read for and to contribute to a class discussion.

Barbara Bellesi, Writer, Editor, and Educator

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That's great! I was an English major in college, so I'm jealous!

I would recommend active reading - that is, reading with a pen/pencil and making notes in the margins relating to the text. You can use the margins to note or highlight any number of things, from when a character is first introduced to when a literary device (like a metaphor) is used.

While taking notes might slow your reading down a bit now, it will save a lot of time later when you are studying or writing papers - all you have to do is go back to your book and check the margins. Of course, if writing in a book is not possible (not sure what the policy on book returns is at your school), then just grab a notebook or use sticky notes to get the job done.

Happy reading!

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