Writing in the Margins of Books

I have a confession to make: I love writing all over books. Something about inking up a favourite story helps me appreciate it in greater depth. An unmarked book is interchangeable with its mass-produced siblings, but a marked book is mine.

This post may offend the sorts of people who read with their books half-closed to avoid cracking the spines. While I do think books are magical, I don’t think they’re sacred. Marginal notes can help you understand techniques and strategies in another author’s writing. I think it’s a great way for a newbie writer to learn.

I picked up the habit at university. Writing marginal notes was useful for essays. I wrote commentary that captured my reaction to an initial reading of a text. I summarized paragraphs and highlighted structural elements. I used symbols and keywords to mark places where a particular topic was mentioned. I wrote snarky comments on weak arguments or statements that conflicted with other statements the author had made earlier.

With fiction, reading a story with a pen in hand helps you approach it analytically. How does this writer handle scene transitions? If you mark those transitions, you can compare them easily with your own. Why do some parts of the story hold your attention better than others? Use symbols to capture your reactions as a reader, then flip through to examine the techniques that create those reactions. How does the author maintain sympathy for a character who does terrible things? Underline rationalizations, one-sided interpretations, touches of humanity, redeeming relationships, and positive interactions with other characters. You can do this with just about anything. Does a plot twist feel unearned? Go back and examine foreshadowing. Does a writer’s description leave a vivid image in your mind? Highlight passages that stir your imagination, then dissect them without mercy.

I’ll give an example. When I was reading a collection of Renard the Fox stories for a medieval studies course, I found myself curious about how the storytellers (these old tales were originally told orally) maintain sympathy for a trickster character who runs around the countryside wronging just about everyone whose path he crosses. (Many scenes in the unsanitized versions are pretty violent.) So I marked places in the text where Renard rationalizes his actions by finding fault with people and animals he preys on. Often he manages to trick them by exploiting their flaws. I noted spots where Renard’s hunger and pain are emphasized. For instance, the hens he wants to eat are described as having full bellies, while he’s starving. When Renard is called into the king’s court to be tried for his crimes, he is still framed as an underdog by having his many enemies gang up on him in an effort to capture him. One scene in particular lays on the sympathy obnoxiously thick: after Renard realizes he will likely be put to death, there is an intimate domestic scene with his wife and children. Since I marked up the text while I was reading, I can now easily follow a thread of analysis through the whole book. And, even though I haven’t read these stories in several years, I had an easy time using them for this example because a quick flip through my marginal notes reminded me of the parts that were relevant.

Maintaining this level of attention on one book clearly takes a lot of time and reflection, so it’s not something I do with everything I read. I think this is all best done with a writer whose work you admire, but you might also find it useful to discover why a bad story doesn’t work. If you get into the habit of looking at stories this way, you can apply the same skills to your own writing.

It’s equally interesting to read other people’s marginal notes. I love the way they capture a reader’s thinking and direct your attention to parts of a text which you may have missed. It’s like having a conversation with another person while you read. Eventually, you can see your own notes in the same way. We all read the same stories differently at later stages in our lives. It’s interesting to realize that the snarky comment you wrote five years ago completely misses the point of a scene.

What are your thoughts on marginal notes?

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3 Responses to Writing in the Margins of Books

  1. Kyra Bandte says:

    I love the idea of taking notes on writing technique and inspiring passages, but I’ve never been a big marginal note-taker, simply for the fact that I didn’t like the idea of defacing the book itself. I’d use post-it notes if I were studying the book for uni, but then the book doubles in size and it’s a little impractical (and they fade easily).
    But this semester I got into the habit of marking a thin line down the margin of a paragraph I thought was interesting. Still can’t bring myself to write comments, but I might get there one day!

    • It wasn’t until my third year of university that I started taking notes on my books, so I understand where you’re coming from. Textbooks are so expensive that I always hoped I could resell them at the end of the semester.

      I’ve tried post-it notes before too, but I find they always end up all over the place. I’ll discover a cryptic post-it note in my backpack six months later and wonder where it came from.

      I mostly take notes on paperback books. I also find it’s much easier psychologically with used books, especially ones with cracked spines and old covers. If you want to keep a nice copy of a favourite book, I’d recommend picking up a cheap used copy for notes.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Kyra Bandte says:

        Definitely, most of the books I own are used paperbacks, so I feel a little less icky about making notes in them.

        Also, I think if I were to go back and re-read those books I’d be more likely to make notes because I’d need the first read-through to enjoy the book for what it is, then need more time to re-read slowly and properly reflect.

        Great post by the way, very thought-provoking!

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