Marginalia and the Fiction Author

From The Productive Indie Fiction Writer:

The idea of marginalia (notes written in the margins of a print book) will either make you recoil in horror, or nod sagely because you’re already a compulsive note-taker.

This excerpt from Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book is worth your consideration:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably, he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

The Book is Yours

If you bought the book it’s yours. Fold pages. Write in books. Rip pages out. The book is yours and the only real objective is transferring the knowledge from the author to you.


Adler’s book mostly deals with reading non-fiction, and it’s highly inspiring.

But do you mark up the fiction stories and novels you read?

Marginalia and note-taking for fiction

We fiction authors read a lot of fiction not just because we like reading it, but also to keep up with the market, to absorb good writing, and to spot cool ideas we can break down and use ourselves.

Why wouldn’t we mark up novels and stories?

Why wouldn’t we deliberately deconstruct them, once we’ve enjoyed (or not) reading them?

Marking up ebooks

Luckily, technology makes it much less painful to mark up an ebook.  Simply highlight and take notes as you (re)read the novel.

Depending upon the ereader or reading app you’re using, the notes can be saved and exported.

I would suggest that if your reading software doesn’t allow you to export your notes and highlights, that you find a different reader. 

As a professional writer, breaking down a book and taking notes is a vital part of your work.  If you can’t access those notes later without opening the novel back up, they’re useless.

Yes, mark up print editions.

As Adler suggests, above, you can’t really absorb a book until you’ve made it your own, and transferred the story into your head.

Keep the marked-up book on your shelf, as a reminder of the all-in way you consumed the story, and your first (and second, third and later) reactions upon reading it.

For much beloved books, you can always buy another copy, and keep it clean and untouched.  Perhaps buy the hardcover version this time, to mark the significance of the story to you.

But do something with the notes!

Once you’ve exported digital notes, you can import them into your notebook, tag them, break them up into their basic components and re-save them where they’ll be most useful.  A character detail, a turn of phrase, a run of dialogue. 

You can also keep the basic plot breakdown as a lesson in plotting, and also as a reminder of the novel, if you ever need to recall your reaction to the book.  It’s also a good tool for building professional reviews.

Depending upon the reader you use, the notes and highlights aren’t permanent – you can turn them off if you ever want to reread the book purely for pleasure.

If your ereader makes the notes permanent, then save a copy of the book to mark up and keep the original clean.  Personally, I don’t bother doing this.  I like reading my own notes and comments on the way through.  But I also have the option to turn them off, if I really want to read the novel without the commentary.

For print books, type out the marginalia and highlights into a new document/your writing notebook.  As you’re typing, new thoughts will occur to you that you can include.  You can expand the notes as you go. 

Then tag and process them the same as you would for other pages in your notebook.  If you keep analogue notebooks, print out the novel’s notes.

Don’t respect books so much that you lose their value to you as a writer

Novels and stories are tools for fiction authors, just as dictionaries are.  A well-marked and scribbled-upon novel is a sign of hard work, evidence that you’ve extracted all the value from the book, to use to enhance your own writing.

Tracy Cooper-Posey

SRP Author and owner of The Productive Indie Fiction Writer

Tracy is one of Stories Rule Press’ most prolific authors. She also hangs out at The Productive Indie Fiction Writer, where she writes about issues facing today’s indie author, and solutions that make the indie life a little easier.