Margin Notes: Does Marginalia Make You a Better Writer?

Do you scribble margin notes in your books when you read? I never really adopted the habit of keeping marginalia, but this past week I read Austin Kleon’s post, Reading with a Pencil, so now I’m thinking about it. He claims marking up your reading material serves as a gateway to becoming a writer. It forces you to read with a writer’s brain. I can see why he says it, but I wonder if it’s true.

Stack of books with pencils

Margin notes felt wrong to me when I was a kid. My mother trained me early on not to write in books. She took me to the library weekly, so there was a specific logic in her insistence I treat the books well. It carried over into how I kept my own books. I recall going through a very brief period at about four when I underlined (in pencil) words I recognized. I say recognized rather than read because “kitten” isn’t difficult to pick out with the book is The Three Little Kittens. But I outgrew the habit quickly, probably about the time my mother realized what I was doing.

Through school, I took notes separately, in my notebook. Teachers handed out all of our textbooks at the start of the year and expected us to return them in good condition in June. The habit was so well ingrained that by college, when I was purchasing my books, it took conscious effort to highlight the text. Even then, I reserved margin scribbles and highlights for my math and science books. As an English major, I mostly read novels in thin-paged editions I tried to keep clean. Ink would have bled through those pages. Pencil would smudge and become illegible. Writing in them felt impractical.

But occasionally I’d come across books with margin notes. At the library, used bookstores, in a friend’s loan. I read enough literary criticism and biographies of authors including references to marginalia to become curious. What process of reading resulted in these small comments? So I decided to give it a try.

Armed with a few sharpened pencils, I crashed on the couch with my latest book and set to reading with a pencil in hand. But it wasn’t a particularly successful experiment. I’d get involved in the book and forget to make any notes whatsoever. Or, I’d grow so self-conscious about needing to take notes that my reading slowed to a crawl.

Looking back having now read Kleon’s post, I understand that the slow, thoughtful reading necessitated by making margin notes helps you read more closely. It forces you to analyze the text in a different way. But at the time, I tried to take notes more because I wanted to be a person who left witty comments in the margins than from a desire to read deeply.

Which brings me to my question. Does keeping marginalia automatically give you a leg up on becoming a writer? It no doubt makes you a better reader. You read more thoroughly, think through the narrative on a different level. You engage with the content. And the act of writing notes has been proven to help you recall what you’ve read. But is that the same things as reading like a writer?

I once read a book on how to write romance–maybe twenty-five years ago, so I can’t recall the title. The author recommended taking a favorite romance novel and marking it up with a color code. Plot development should be underlined in one color, characterization in another, action a third, and so on. I gave it a very brief attempt before giving up. First, writing is not that clear cut; sentences serve multiple purposes at once, so what color to choose? Second, the slow, frustrating task had me ready to throw my colored pencils out a window after less than a chapter. I’d never make it through underlining the book. Still, the process of trying to separate out those differen parts of the text showed how well the author had entwine them. It served as a lesson on book structure, which was ultimately the point.

Marginalia can include the reader’s thoughts on many aspects of the text. Looking through books with margin notes, you’ll find lovely quotes underlined, disgust expressed at purple prose, and comments on the sanity of the protagonist. Readers focus on whatever captures their attention, but not everything readers note will be helpful to their writing process. I’d argue marginalia can definitely be helpful to the developing writer, but that the most helpful marginalia occurs when the writer reads with that specific intention. A reader who reads for pleasure and happens to make notes won’t engage on the same level as one hoping to improve their writing.

What are your thoughts? Do you write in your books? Is it something you feel helps you understand how the author approached their work? I’d love to hear some other takes on the subject.

6 thoughts on “Margin Notes: Does Marginalia Make You a Better Writer?

  1. I have written in my books since college. I underline the lines that strike me as very apt, especially if they manage to convey an emotion or thought I have had but didn’t quite know how to put into words. But I mark up books in appreciation for the writer’s skill, not with any constructive purpose of my own. I have, on occasion, gone back to find quotes in order to share them with others, and of course underlining makes that far less painful.

    One thing I do know: if I read I book and don’t underline or star or make any notes, I know that is a book I can easily give away and not miss.

    And of course this practice of writing in books became an important plot point in I Hold the Wind. 🙂

    1. I love that as a way of determining what books to keep and what can go. I need that sort of litmus test for the burgeoning collection. 🙂

  2. Like you, I was taught not to write in books (my mother was a librarian). But as an English major in college, I did underline a few passages (in pencil) and make a one-word comment such as “humor” or “contradiction.” I don’t know now whether these were my own insights or whether the professor directed our class to the passages. I am now part of an online writers group that is dissecting one novel each quarter to assess why it became a breakthrough success (we use Donald Maass’ questions and criteria for this exercise). While I refrain from note-taking in these books’ margins, I do, while reading, bracket important passages and note the page numbers inside the paperbacks’ front covers so I can quote them when the online discussion begins. So I read your post with interest. Would I be a better fiction writer if I did allow myself more freedom with my pen or pencil? I plan to give marginalia a try, starting with my online discussion groups’ book choices, not those I read for pleasure–even though my pleasure reading is usually quite serious. So I guess I’m still my mother’s daughter. No marginalia unless it’s for a very good (academic) purpose.

    1. I’d be interested to hear how it goes. I feel there’s a definite academic purpose to the process, or at least that’s what I associate it with. Maybe that’s why I had a hard time doing it for a leisure read.

  3. I truly can’t write in my books. It’s far too ingrained to not damage my books in any way. I even have difficulty writing in workbooks! While going through a chest of things from my college days, I found two utterly pristine workbooks from classes I know I got “A”s in.

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