Reading a piece of literature without a pen in hand is akin to attending a class but not taking notes. All “reception” and no “processing” (outside the brain, that is) can leave you with no material to refer to later when it’s time to study for an exam or write about the book. In addition, if you annotate, the interactions you have with the text as you absorb it, make sense of it, and question it help to shape your opinion about it, as well as fuel your future assertions about what the piece has to offer.
So read with a pen in your hand. In the most basic method of annotation, you can simply use exclamation points and question marks in the margins. As you become more comfortable with this, think about all the possible literary devices at work in literature and note when you see the author employing a metaphor or expressing irony. Keep a close eye on the plot line as you read a short story so that you can indicate when you see rising action, increasing tension, the climax of the story, and the outer stages of exposition and denouement. Using a simple set of initials works well, with E in the margin as you see exposition being offered, RA for rising action (and perhaps a little ↑ because tension is increasing), a C to denote the last point of tension (the “explosion”), and a D for the tying up of loose ends and details that denouement provides.
Keep a highlighter nearby (depending on the type of paper the literature is printed on) for noting new vocabulary. Put a synonym in the margin near it.
As time passes, you may find that you have questions when you read, and the margin provides room for short phrases such as, “Fishing at night—alone?” or “Why does he need to think before answering—lying?” You may also see connections between aspects of the story, as you delve further into the material, or recognize that a symbolic element is being used again, and why. Note these!
If you are reading a certain genre (type of literature) in a weeks-long unit, you will want to note similarities between elements of this piece and another you have already read. When the assignment involves comparison of aspects of two short stories, you have some ready material to include in your paper.
Remember that your own personal reactions have a place in your annotations. It would be impossible to read The Great Gatsby and not have a reaction to at least one of the characters or his or her actions, for example. And annotation does not require formal language. Perfectly fine notes in the margin for Tom or Daisy Buchanan might include, “Shallow! Pretentious! Brute!” etc. When Nick makes certain statements as narrator, I might write, “Contradicts himself—hypocrite.” A student of mine after reading the short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” was so angry that the author didn’t reveal the ending that she wrote a few sentences of her frustration that he had left her hanging, including many exclamation points.
More power to her, and to you, to get emotionally involved when you are reading literature.