Let’s get something out of the way real quick: I desecrate my books. *Le gasp!*
In every book of my academic career, you can find phrases circled and underlined, passages starred, and quick analysis hanging out in the margins. The fancy term for that is marginalia, which sounds more than a little dirty (so of course, love). Since I’ve left academia, I only have a handful of those books left, which means that someone, somewhere, is walking around with a pristine sample of my handwriting if they ever want to forge a check–though they’ll be sorely disappointed. Starving artist and all that.
The day my teacher told me to desecrate a book, I did gasp. I was not the dog-ear kind of girl. I was not the sand in the binding kind of beach reader. I did not flatten out my pages so my fingers didn’t cramp when I held them open. Books are sacred, thank you very much. We do no burn them, and we do not hurt their precious feelings. When my junior year Honors English teacher, Mr. Loper, told us to highlight our books, it felt like a rebellion. A dirty little secret that we were somehow keeping right under the noses of the administration. After all, it was high school, which meant we had to give the books back at the end of the year. We had hard confirmation that someone else would be stuck with our blasphemy. And that was a strange amount of mental pressure to hurdle.
But I did it. And it felt great.
When I got to college, Dr. von Wallmenich finished off Loper’s handiwork. She’s the one who taught me Observation, Analysis, and Synthesis. She’s the one who taught me how to annotate books—how to write in the margins—and I copied a lot of her assignments for my own class, which I hope amounts to pedagogical flattery rather than plagiarism, *she says, laughing nervously.* The story of every writer, I swear, is a breadcrumb trail of fantastic English teachers. Because I undoubtedly will forget Dr. Chen when I get to synthesis, here’s her shout-out now. And Dr. Aspinall for rounding out my undergraduate Trifecta. Okay, I’ll stop. Nope, have to give Mrs. Bunnell her dues too for starting me on writing. Okay, now I’ll stop.
The point of this desecration is simple: it’s the first step. It’s a way of engaging with what’s on the page, of observing the things it has to tell us.
If we need to let the text speak, annotation is active listening.
I can’t tell you how many times I sat down to write a paper and had a sudden panic attack that I didn’t know what I was doing. Either I didn’t know what it was saying (*cough* poetry *cough*), or I didn’t know if I could fill 10 pages with some kind of insightful through-line that would earn me an A. I kid you not, that same thing happened to me for this blog series. I chose a (vaguely witchy) poem to use as our observation, analysis, and synthesis exercise, and I stared at it for a second and thought, “what the heck am I going to say about this?” I actually turned to my husband and said, “shit, did I choose the wrong poem?” Then I took a deep breath, broke out my pencil, and started annotating. By the end of it, I had it.
I just needed to work through it.
Language is layered. Annotating helps us peel back those layers.
A sentence functions threefold: its content (what it’s saying), its syntax (sentence structure, grammar, mechanics, etc), and its connotations (the extra added meaning to each word). I’m totally making this up right now, so someone else might say it works fourfold or fivefold, but for today, let’s just trust Professor Christina.
Your job, with your handy-dandy pencil, is to figure out how the syntax and connotations add up to its content. How does it say *more* by using these commas here, those images there? The expert writer will make the language work harder than your average person trying to say the same thing. Everything will align under the banner of theme or character or plot. It will speak volumes.
It’s the ultimate show don’t tell—the glint on broken glass. Because it’s happening right under our noses.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”Anton Chekov
And if you get good enough at recognizing how other expert writers do it, you’ll have an easier time figuring out how to do it yourself.
Boom. *Mic drop*
How to Annotate
Okay, so we know why we want to do this—now how do we do it? Are there rules?
The short answer: No. The slightly longer answer: Whatever works for you, do it.
If you want to underline, underline. If you like circling or drawing arrows or using boxes for certain ideas, go for it. Anything that I show you is just my way of doing things, and honestly, it’s not even internally consistent. The important part is that I worked through the text, that I marked something down. Tangibly. The rest is just noise.
Let’s do it!
I found a beautiful poem by James Davis May on Poetry Foundation titled, “Moonflowers.” (I would link, but as of writing this, the url on Poetry Foundation is broken… but don’t worry, I have the full text below.)
It’s pretty, I liked it. It made me feel something.
That, at the end of the day, is what poetry’s supposed to do. To quote Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” What I loved about this poem is it was just this subtly sweet thing until suddenly it swerved and grabbed me.
So, for the purposes of these next three blog posts, we’re going to explore how the heck May managed to do it—how he got the language to affect me, and what that effect means in the grand scheme of his poem.
James Davis May
Tonight at dusk we linger by the fence
around the garden, watching the wound husks
of moonflowers unclench themselves slowly,
almost too slow for us to see their moving–
you notice only when you look away
and back, until the bloom decides,
or seems to decide, the tease is over,
and throws its petals backward like a sail
in wind, a suddenness about this as though
it screams, almost the way a newborn screams
at pain and want and cold, and I still hear
that cry in the shout across the garden
to say another flower is about to break.
I go to where my daughter stands, flowers
strung along the vine like Christmas lights,
one not yet lit. We praise the world by making
others see what we see. So now she points and feels
what must be pride when the bloom unlocks itself
from itself. And then she turns to look at me.
If we were in a classroom setting, I’d pass out this poem in printed form and break everyone into groups to work on annotating it together—first on their own, without me. If you want to get in the spirit of it, you can print this out, or, if you’re like me, you can copy it onto notebook paper by hand (double spaced) and then annotate it yourself. The process of working through the language can be uncomfortable the first few times, but go ahead and try it. Try circling anything that stands out to you—striking words or phrases, grammar that seems odd or fascinating. Literally anything that feels like there might be a little extra something buried inside. The nuggets of gold embedded in the wall.
Now let’s break it down. Threefold.
Like with our last exercise (close reading Sia’s “The Greatest”), we’re going to list out the observations. What do we see happening in this poem?
Content: what it’s saying.
This is the very basic “what happens” kind of question, so it feels a little silly to write it out, but it will become important later—after we’ve done the three steps to close read—because everything we explore will hopefully add to this meaning.
Tonight at dusk, the speaker and his daughter watch the moonflowers bloom.
Syntax: how it’s saying it.
Despite it being in verse (aka, not prose, or not in paragraph form), May uses normal punctuation. There are commas and dashes at the ends of lines, and there are periods. In total, there are only five sentences. The first is the largest of them all. They get shorter as he goes.
Tons of prepositional phrases: AT dusk, BY the fence, AROUND the garden, etc.
Lots of hedging and filtering: slowly, almost too slow for us to see their moving; you notice only when you look away and back; until the bloom decides, or seems to decide.
Clauses stacked one right after the other—extends that first sentence so it’s longer
Repetition of “and” instead of standard list form: almost the way a newborn screams AND pain AND want AND cold AND still I hear that cry
Later sentences are shorter and closer to fragments: so now she points; and then she turns
Uses similes more than metaphors: like a sail, as though it screams, almost the way a newborn screams, like Christmas lights
Even though in first person, uses second person (you): you notice only when you look away and back
Connotations: what else it’s saying.
This is where people usually get the most tempted to skip a step and jump straight to analysis or synthesis. Resist the urge! Here, we’re just noting what we want to explore more in depth later.
Newborn language: screams, pain, want, cold, cry, shout
Christmas language: flowers strung along the vine like christmas lights, one not yet lit; praise the world
Looking language: by making others see what we see; watching, notice only when you look away and back; ends with her turning to look at me.
Flower language: unclench themselves, unlocks itself from itself, throws its petals backward like a sail in the wind, is to break
Other interesting language: linger, tease, suddenness; wound; husks
Violent language: scream, pain, cry, shout, throws, breaks, wound (double entendre)
That’s it—we’ve observed!
You might have noticed something else that I didn’t or missed something I wrote down. Different readers pick up on different things. And that’s okay! Close reading is, at the end of the day, subjective. But for the most part, I assume we might have touched on some of the same things. What exactly those things are doing—and what they mean at large—is what we’ll talk about in the next two blog posts.
For now, we’re done. We’ve worked through the poem, we’ve engaged with it actively. We’ve observed what’s interesting about it.
What can we take way from this as creative writers?
First: don’t be above annotating your own manuscript.
The red-pen phase of editing is my favorite. It means I get to print out all the work I’ve done. Bind it up. Give it a title page. Holding the whole heft of your words is magical—it captures a tiny sliver of what it must feel like to be published, to have copies of your own books sitting on your bookshelf. *Le sigh.* One day.
It’s also aggressively satisfying to strike the red pen through all the crap. Cutting repetition, axing ten-million dialogue tags, writing “be better, Naomi!” in the margins (inside joke from watching Open House on Netflix with my sister). It’s the first step towards a much shinier Draft 2.
But the red pen phase can also be a time to circle your happy accidents—or your not-so-happy ones.
- If you see lots of prepositional phrases in a passage, circle them. They are not all necessarily bad, but they have an effect, just like passive voice.
- If you see a tonal pattern in a paragraph of description, underline each word that pushes you to feel that certain way.
- If you notice a striking character description, put a star next to it.
Read your text like it’s poetry, like you only have so much real estate and need to make the most of your pages—because, honestly, that’s true.
Listen to what your manuscript is telling you, as a reader, and then use that information to make a decision in your revisions. Is that character description helpful or is it not really what you’re trying to say? Do those prepositional phrases slow down a passage that needs slowing down, or are they just getting in the way?
Notice what’s happening on the page.
Then do it better.
Second: make that shit striking, yo.
Whether you’re in the first draft or the tenth, make your language striking. Give it teeth. Interesting language–powerful language–jumps out at the reader. Grabs them. If you’ve got a lot of vague, banal language in there, nothing will stick out.
This came out at the exact right moment for me! I just started annotating my books and I felt all slimey and sneaky–like I was doing something wrong. I needed this! Thank you!