Comments and Marginalia in Manuscripts

As I was writing a post about “comments” in computer programming source code, I noted that I like comments and marginalia when I write for “human” readers. Even when writing for myself, I like to preserve my notes. One of the things we lose with the transition from paper to digital media is the marginalia and other marks readers and writers leave as they read and write.

Reading and Marking

My wife and I both love books. We revere books. Because of this respect for the printed page, neither of us is an active highlighter, annotator, or scribbler. When I took a class that required marking in a book, it pained me to be destroying the pages with green and orange highlights.

When I buy a book, especially a textbook, I don’t want someone’s marks on the pages. First, the previous reader(s) might have marked the wrong passages as important. Second, it is distracting. I want to read and think about a text on my own, at least initially.

I do take notes, and I use Post-It flags to mark important passages. But, I cannot push myself to mark on the pages, no matter how useful that might be. I realize that most of the books I own have little resale value, but some are valuable. They are all valuable to me, regardless.

However, I realize that writing notes and highlighting strategically are good study skills. These are skills I wish my students possessed. It would help most of them earn better grades and, more importantly, consider texts more thoughtfully.

When I do see a student’s text marked, the pages are nearly solid markings. I have to explain to a student, yes, authors should make every word count, but you highlighting every word doesn’t help you focus on the most essential passages. If more than a quarter of a chapter is marked, there is no way to review and study the content effectively in the future.

Here are some suggestions for marking and marginalia I offer my classes:

  1. Limit marks to less than a third, ideally less than a quarter, of any chapter or section.
  2. Use more than one color to code the text in a meaningful manner.
  3. Mark words or phrases that represent the essence of the content, especially technical jargon.
  4. Annotate when a section refers back to another section, with a page number and word or phrase. (For example: “Ref’s c2p23: continental drift.”)
  5. Compare your notes to the index and table of contents, because titles and index references reflect major concepts in most texts.
  6. Outline using the marks you made, updating marginalia as necessary.

Marking a text seems tedious to many students. And, if they are avid readers and book lovers like me, they might resist marking directly on a page. That is why I also demonstrate using Post-It flags and notes for book lovers.

Unlike when I was an undergraduate, today students and teachers carry notebooks and tablet computers. I recommend using dedicated outlining software, either while reading or while reviewing marks. Many word processors have an outline mode, and you can use any text editor for notes, but a program such as OmniOutliner lets you organize and reorganize your thoughts. I demonstrate OmniOutliner and several free alternatives to my classes when I discuss the value of outlining after reading a text.

For books that are in digital formats, most e-reader software has highlighting and comment modes. I scan some older, more fragile texts and “mark” the PDF copy. When I can work with a digital copy of a text, I write a lot of notes to myself.

Notes While Writing

I make notes to myself while writing. Not a few notes, either. These notes help me when I edit, reorganize, and revise any text. Sadly, many writers working at computers don’t take notes. In the dark ages, a writer would write in longhand or type and make all manner of marks on the pages. Those marks and notes were helpful, but that practice is fading.

Tangent: My theory is that longhand and typing force writers to go slowly, to think about every word. When writing each word takes a bit of effort, I write less — but I write better. That’s why I write on legal pads and in notebooks, especially when writing fiction. There are fewer distractions and less temptation to generate high word counts on paper.

When I do open the laptop or pull out the keyboard drawer, I keep making notes while I enter text into my text editors and word processors. I spend part of a class meeting on using the “comments” feature in various programs because I want my students to develop this note taking habit. By the end of the semester, students are thanking me — as if some great mystery had been reveled to them. (Most claim to be masters of Word, yet have little awareness of templates, styles, macros, or basic automation tools.)

Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages both support comments. When you print, you can control whether or not to print the comments — but there’s no need to delete the comments before you print the document! Too often, my students delete comments that might be useful later. If you must remove comments and other marks from a document before sending it to another person, make a copy of the file first.

Do not place notes as text within the document, not even as “hidden” or “non-printing” text. Comments in a document will alter the layout, page count, and word count. Learn to use your word processors and editors properly.

One reason I love Pages and Scrivener is that they save “versions” and “snapshots” of documents. If you decide that what you have been typing for the last four hours isn’t what you wanted, not a problem. You can “revert to previous” or “restore snapshot” and get back the version you liked. The edits are not lost, either — they are stored as comments and notes.

Additional Notes

I encourage using comments, and I also encourage keeping all other notes taken during the writing process.

Good writers plan. They outline. They research. As they write, they revise and reorganize what they’ve already written. I’ve always kept a physical folder for each writing project, and I try to use a single notebook or legal pad for my handwritten notes, that way the notes for more than one project don’t end up intermingled. I’m usually working on more than one project, so keeping organized is essential.

I advise all writers, especially my students, to keep everything for a project together, both physically and virtually. How you organize the materials should reflect your work style, but be organized. It never seems to fail that the notes you thought you didn’t need anymore become essential to a passage you are writing or revising. Even when you finish a project, keep the notes.

Every writing project has to potential to become another project. For example, I’ve had short stories become stage plays, and then morph into screenplays. I’ve taken novels and turned them into scripts, and vice-versa. The notes I’ve maintained along the way have enabled me to adapt works effectively. Adaptation is hard work, be it an old short story that inspires a novel or a novel that might work well as a film. Without my notes, I might not remember why I made various choices.

Non-fiction also changes. I’ve written articles that lead to other articles. You don’t want to “reuse” earlier works, but you do want to draw from them. Good research for an article remains valuable even if it is contradicted by later research findings. Having old notes, therefore, helps construct better arguments in later works.

While I love physical folders, notepad, and notecards, eventually you type a manuscript or research paper. Since my earliest computing days, I’ve organized my projects carefully. At first, each project was a single floppy disk — or set of disks with labels of the same color. Multicolored disks were a great invention, too! Once hard drives became affordable, I created a “writing” directory (folder) and created folders within that for each project.

Today, I sill keep folders within folders, carefully named for quick searches. The folder approach is good, but for a few years now I have taken this to the next step by using Scrivener for drafts of most writing projects. If you write a lot, buy Scrivener (http://www.literatureandlatte.com). I also suggest buying Bookends (http://www.sonnysoftware.com) if you need to prepare bibliographies and track sources. Without writing a review of Scrivener (there are many online, since it is a great program), I’ll explain my endorsement simply: it organizes any writing, and all the research for that project, in a nice “binder” with sections.

Whether a writer uses Scrivener and Bookends or some other combination of tools, keeping notes is invaluable.

It is easy, too easy, to delete a document or project from digital media. A click or a keystroke and away the file goes, the bits to be reclaimed and reused for other data. With hard drives, USB memory sticks, and other media so affordable, there really is no good reason to delete documents or other files. Resist the temptation, unless you have a very, very good, extremely good, reason to do so. And even then, I’d discourage deletion.

What if You Become Famous?

That might seem like a silly question, but it is serious to scholars.

When writers worked on paper, libraries and universities could archive the materials of famous individuals. While some writers’ notes were destroyed (Jane Austen) and others hoped their notes would be destroyed (Franz Kafka), the manuscripts, notes, journals, and correspondence left behind by writers are useful artifacts for scholars.

E-mail is unlikely to be saved, so we are likely losing the notes writers exchange with editors, publishers, and agents. We are also losing most of their personal correspondence. (Granted, most emails isn’t worthy of being archived, but not all handwritten or typed letters were important, either.) E-mail, text messages, and other electronic communications quickly fade, though some services like Twitter do offer their archives to the Library of Congress and universities for research.

Sadly, even archived data can be rendered useless.

The floppy disks, old hard drives, and other media stored in our basement cannot be accessed by our current computers. I have no floppy drives, no tower cases with IDE interfaces, no way to access the odd media that seemed so amazing 15 years ago (Zip and LS-120 drives).

I try to remember to migrate old documents and files, including those I haven’t used for years, to each new system I buy or hard drive I install. I’m sure I’ve missed some files over the years, though. In those cases, I should still have printed documents in file folders.

Do your part to keep comments and marginalia alive.