A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

As an undergraduate when I was given a free choice to write about a work I often wrote about poetry. Writing about poetry was an easy thing because in a time-crunched-world poetry’s brevity allowed for rereading. When it came to novels I often felt I didn’t notice patterns until well into a book and I wasn’t about to reread an entire novel for a five page paper.

I’ve become a better reader over the years. I’ve also figured out my interests and those interests pop a lot more when I read. The rise of searchable online texts also makes the search for evidence a lot easier. What a time to be alive!

While in graduate school I developed a model of reading and note taking that relied heavily on a system of abbreviated tagging. This was a response to the time crunch, reading for specific class themes, reading for comps, and reading for teaching. I eventually codified many of my abbreviations into a handy chart. As my classes changed each semester and my research interests evolved, so too would the chart evolve.

Abbr Chart Sample

Behold! The Chart! Well, one version of the chart from many years ago.

As you can see, it is made up of a lot of scholarly buzzwords and an abbreviation for the words. As I read, I tagged things I see in the text with an abbreviation in the margins. If what I read in the text was an outstanding example, bizarre, or noteworthy in some other way, then I also tagged it with an exclamation point. Regarding characters or plot, I used the blank space on my chart to record page numbers of note corresponding to those folks and/or plot points. If I was inspired to add additional tag to the chart, then I’d also record that, too.


After I was done reading, or as a break from

Portion of the chart filled out

A filled out version of the chart.

reading, I’d go through my book’s tags and fill out the chart with the corresponding page numbers. I recommend filling in the chart as you go and not waiting to do an entire novel!

I can see the time crunch and exhaustion of the spring coming down the pike. My thoughts turn to my chart. I’m not one to meticulously plan out every detail of my classes, which are discussion based since I try to keep lecture to a minimum. The chart helps as a reference point in class when it comes to discussing specific topics. If I want an example, then I consult my chart, and refer to the tagged section of the book. No searching through minuscule notes or bookmarks. It saves time in the classroom.

One positive about the chart is that it allows for a safety net when students want to lead discussion to unlikely directions. Like I said, I don’t like planning out my classes in excruciating detail. I’ve had far too many experiences where students became animated about an aspect of the text and want to go in a different direction. The notetaking system I’ve developed, in most cases, allows me to follow my students and have a stable of examples or instances from the text that fit their thrust of discussion.

One notable abbreviation is the “T.” That stands for teaching. Those include passages that offer significant opportunities for the classroom. Those might be substantial moments in the text. They might be unusual. They might fit with the theme. You know these moments when you see them. The nice thing about the chart is that the “T” moments can be easily cross-referenced with other parts of the list since everything is recorded in numerical order.

2015-12-08 09.13.58

Sample pages with abbreviated notes.

Using abbreviations in my reading has many practical aspects beyond the ease of notetaking. First, my handwriting is not very good. It is large and sloppy. The abbreviations can be small and neat. The ease of writing helps with the arthritis in my hands. Additionally, when we read we often read through a particular lens geared towards our class or research interests. The abbreviated note taking allows for a marking of the text that isn’t obtrusive. Because the notes are scant there will be plenty of space remaining for future rereading from different perspectives that geared towards other themes.

Over my scant semester break I’m planning to reread the texts for my classes. I’ll be breaking in new versions of texts I’ve read before for other classes. I want to have good notes and references on these works. This model of note taking may not work for you, but I wanted to offer it since many of us will be pressed for time and will reread works over the break—works we might not get to teach until well into the spring semester. Over the break, I’ll be using my chart to take and organize my notes. I’ll also try working with my phone’s native dictation feature to save some time on notetaking. For a more traditional take on notetaking, but with a technological twist, I recommend reading about the dictation/research/notetaking approach used by Kevin Gannon.


1 Comment

Filed under teaching, Uncategorized

One response to “A Novel Approach to Marginal Notes

  1. Reblogged this on Welcome to Pedagogy & American Literary Studies and commented:

    Many of us are crunched for time and we will be using the semester break to get ahead for the spring semester. Here is a quick way to annotate a text with notes for both the classroom and research purposes. It is easy and adaptable to your research and teaching interests!

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