Annotation Symols

Hey guys,

I am looking to get the most out of books I am reading and I am trying to get better at annotating texts. I am looking both for a good set of symbols to use and better ideas about how to process the text and look for stuff. I could not find much other than very elementary stuff for kids when I searched for it.


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Tiago Forte has a really good approach for taking notes and processing them, so you get more out of texts. Two posts on his blog. The first is the background and thinking, and the second is examples.

(Ignore what he says about tags. He changes his mind later.)

Also, he has this great post on how to take notes. TL;DR: use your notes for thinking and learning, not for recording passages verbatim.

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Thanks, I saw Tiago mentioning it in one of his article, I think he called it circle of information or something to that meaning, but could not find more about it in his blog and I thought maybe it is one of his premium only content.

I think he said he is only OK with tags as far as they are very few and used only to show the status of a note, e.g. reviewed, unread etc. Don’t know his view has changed even more about tags or not.

That’s his latest on tags.

I’ve taken his advice on tagging things based on where there’ll be used.

I do UX, a wide ranging discipline, and I tag things based on where it’ll be used in the future. For me, tagging a few things accessibility and some others information design lines up with how my future projects have different focuses.

These might be look like topic tags, but I think the chief usefulness is that instead of arranging by topic, it’s arranged for what I would search for to find the references I need for future work. Splitting hairs, but it’s been a useful distinction for me.

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This is the exactly the distinction that Sönke Ahrens makes in his book “How to take smart notes”. In his words, some people tag like librarians/archivists (their tags help store stuff) and some people tag like writers (their tags help find stuff).

I recently stumbled on a guy who advocates an approach to processing books based on the metaphor of book as a food for thought. This is not a ready-made recipe for stellar annotation system, rather a more general approach, but I believe it has a lot of value.

Below is my very liberal take on his approach (this is translated from Russian, don’t know if there’s an English translation available):

Main principles

  1. Similar to how food consists of 6 main ingridients (proteins, carbs, fat, micronutrients/vitamins, fiber, and water), each books consists of different kinds of information.
  2. Some of those kinds of information are more useful than others.
  3. Each kind of information should be treated differently.

Different kinds of information

Now, these are the kinds of information that can be recognized as sufficiently different:

  • “proteins”, a.k.a. directly actionable info. This is something you can start using immediately: a new lifehack or trick, a principle that you can include into your daily life, stuff like this.
  • “carbs”, a.k.a. the ideas and concepts that you have to think about for a while (“to break down a bit”), and which motivate you and/or make you wonder. These could potentially deliver way more “energy” than a “protein” would: a piece of ancient stoic wisdom that you have “to chew on”, or a curious insight into human behavior, or a new concept that explains some things that didn’t quite make sense before.
  • “fats”, a.k.a. the stuff that makes a book “tastier”: stories, metaphors etc.
  • “vitamins”, a.k.a the stuff that makes you erudite: curious cases, anecdotes, pithy quotes.
  • “fiber”, a.k.a. hard data: numbers, figures, tables, facts, references to other books or people, statistics and so on. Books without fiber usually fall into “philosophical musings” category (or are fiction).
  • the rest is “water”.

With this background, and considering the first three principles, here’s how you apply this method.


First, note that the stuff that is life-useful (as opposed to “research-useful”) is either a protein or a carb. So, these two categories get a special treatment and will have to be extracted from the book in any way you find practical. The rest can usually stay in the book unless you need to remember the stuff (e.g. by making Anki cards for “fiber” or lifting quotes off the book into your Scrapbook =)

Second, “proteins” should end up in your calendar or todo list: being directly actionable, they should influence the way you go about your day, so don’t just extract them into yet another Zettel, instead find a way to change the way you live and act based on this new info.

Third, “carbs” is the stuff that your evergreen notes are made of (or grow from). These should definitely be put into Obsidian, but you might want to ponder those ideas during your shower or commute to make them useful and practical.

Fourth, when reading a paper book, in case you don’t want to interrupt your reading process too much, mark the pages with proteins/carbs by highlighting and putting a sticky boomark at the top (for proteins) or bottom (for carbs) of the page. You will return to those pages when you finish the book and start extracting your notes/highlights. All other ingridients are highlighted and marked with stickies on the side of the page, but stay in the book in case you need that info.

So, this is it in a nutshell.

While the whole thing might sound very weird, and the metaphor somewhat stretched, I really believe that he goes a couple of steps beyond usual advice on reading:

  • the killer idea is that “not all information is equal”, so two highlights might be very very different in terms of their weight and applicability (kinda obvious when you think about it).
  • hence you should only extract the info that directly influences your actions (proteins) or thoughts (carbs). the rest is either specialized reference info or fluff, both can be safely left in the book (to make your reading even more efficient you can even skip fluff and hard info when reading, but this is a whole another topic)
  • carbs require a lot of additional processing but deliver a lot of bang for the buck.
  • if you need to memorize anything from the book, use SRS (Anki). naturally, hard data are best suited to making flashcards out of them, but you can do cloze deletions on a normal text too.
  • you can go even more “meta” with your reading and start by carefully selecting the books you want to read, so you don’t waste time on stuff that’s marginally useful or enjoyable.
  • this method works for all kinds of reading! fiction, non-fiction, scientific literature, blog posts, encyclopedia articles − these all have some kind of mixture of the main 6 kinds of info, and you should be able to separate those kinds when reading.
  • it’s still OK to read fat-only books! =) just like it’s OK to eat mostly-fat foods (in moderation though). fiction is the best example here − who doesn’t want to spend an evening with a crime novel in one hand and a glass of something equally enjoyable in the other? =)

So, while I don’t have a quick tip on annotation symbols, this approach might still prove useful. Make of it what you will.


That was really interesting, It is based on actionability so it is a sort of P.A.R.A. system for note-taking. I think getting data/ fluff can be necessary in some cases and fields of work but I think over all it is a good distinction to make about data.