Annotation Tips for Students

Your teacher will likely have specific guidelines about creating annotations for your class work. Follow these first and foremost — you don’t want to get us in trouble, do you?

Here, though, are 5 best practices we believe can make your annotations better — more visually appealing and informative — from our perspective as veterans of annotation:

1. Select text carefully for annotation

This means a couple different things.

First, you’ll want to focus in on the most intriguing or ambiguous  passages of a text for analysis, though as you will see from user modelstudent’s annotations below on the opening of Hamlet, even some of the most mundane lines can be full of deeper meaning. If the passage is difficult to comprehend at first read, then that’s a good sign that an annotation could tell us something interesting.

Note: if a classmate has already selected the passage you want to write about, you can either respond by opening their annotation and clicking “reply,” or annotate it yourself by re-selecting the same text. You can also select text within or that includes another highlight or annotation.

Second, select a discrete, but complete piece of text for your analysis.

It seems unlikely that that word alone will produce an interesting annotation
It seems unlikely that that word alone will produce an interesting annotation

Even within a passage that is clearly rich with meaning, you’ll want to choose specific words or phrases for analysis. At the very least, think about your annotation as responsible to whatever text you select. Highlight only what you actually want to talk about in your annotation. But also be sure you highlight enough text so that there is something to say about it. In some rare cases, this may be a single word. More likely it is a line or two of poetry or a sentence or phrase from an essay. You probably don’t want to select entire stanzas or paragraphs for annotation; the unit of analysis should be more focused.

2. Annotations should be additive

Second here only in order of appearance, if there was one rule of annotation, it would be this one: Your annotations should add something to what is already in the text you are annotating.

In many cases, this means analyze don’t summarize — what your teachers have been telling you in English class since middle school. But a good question can add something to the conversation around the text. So can looking up a difficult word or an unknown reference.

Annotation that just rephrases the text and not all that helpfully at that
Annotation that analyzes the text while also making broader connections to the work as a whole

Note: again, a big part of making an annotation interesting is selecting the right text to annotate. There are some parts of some texts that are probably not worth annotating or at least are harder to say something “additive” about. The “Who’s there” opening line of Hamlet above could actually be such an example, but this student did find something additive to offer.

This rule doesn’t always apply of course. In some cases, for some classes, your teacher may ask you to use annotation as a way to paraphrase or translate passages, and with especially difficult texts, like works of literature from distant moments in history, this is in fact additive.

3. Make use of the toolbar

The toolbar
The toolbar

Writing online is especially visual. Formatting can be used to powerfully emphasize important points. For example:

  • italicizing keywords from the text that you are commenting on
  • setting aside particularly long quotations in “pull quotes”
  • bulleting points visually identifies ideas for clear presentation (see what we did there?)

But it’s also true that one should avoid using these formatting elements to the point of distraction.

Note:  the buttons on the toolbar actually insert what’s called “markdown” (a basic computer language) into the annotation composition window. Below it simply added asterix around a word which I selected and clicked the italics button for. I could have simply added italics around the word. This also means some other formatting available in markdown is possible for which we haven’t yet included buttons. To learn some of the basics of markdown, check out this guide.

Markdown for italics is just an asterisk at the beginning and end of the word to be italicized
Markdown for italics is just an asterisk at the beginning and end of the word to be italicized

4. Use links and images

Though part of the toolbar mentioned above, these two are worth their own item on this list. (In fact we created an entire tutorial devoted to just links, image and video here.)

Insert link button in Hypothesis toolbar
Insert link button in Hypothesis toolbar

Links can be used in a lot of ways. They can act like a bibliographical note to show where you got your ideas from — they show you did your homework! They can make intertextual connections, linking back to other texts read in the course — even other specific annotations on those texts! They can guide your readers toward other relevant readings that are beyond the scope of your discussion in the annotation.

Insert image button in Hypothesis toolbar

On a basic level, images make our annotations more appealing. Think of how much more likely to “like” or click on an status update with image in Facebook versus one that is just text. Aside from appeal, though, images can used to bring a text to life or help make an argument.

Good use of relevant image
Good use of relevant image

Your teacher may want to consider things like the copyright status of images you use and giving attribution to their creators, and indeed this is good web practice.

Note: we’re working on video embedding so that Youtube and other videos will be playable within annotations as they are, for example, on Facebook.

5. Use tags

Using tags
Using tags

Your teacher may require you to use tags for a variety of reasons. A course hashtag can be particularly useful as it generates a stream of content related to the tag on the Hypothesis site. This will allow you and your classmates to follow each other’s work more easily. A teacher may require you to identify certain textual elements like “setting” in annotations as well.

Tagging can also be helpful for your own research purposes. In the above example, the student has tagged some thematic elements that may come up later in the text under study or other texts that are part of the course. Having marked these themes might make it easier to gather evidence and quotes for analysis in a final paper.