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Let nothing fall through the cracks – 9 compelling reasons to annotate your text in NVivo for Mac

11 May 2015 - BY Kath McNiff IN annotations, for, mac, nvivo

For most researchers, annotating (or scribbling notes in the margin) is a bit like breathing - it's a natural and vital part of the analytical process.

But sometimes when you're working in NVivo, it can be easy to forget how important these 'scribbles' are - particularly when you're seduced by coding, querying and those awesome word clouds.

Writing is an analysis tool in qualitative research. As you write, you see new possibilities, loopholes, contradictions, surprises. (Richards, 2009: 50)

The time has come to honor the humble annotation - and NVivo for Mac is the perfect platform.

What is an annotation?

An annotation is a brief (ish) comment about a specific passage in your documents or PDFs - it might be a reminder, a question or a light-bulb moment.

As you read through an article or document, you can easily add an annotation  - select the text, press SHIFT+⌘+A and type your notes.

When you click outside the annotation, the annotated text is highlighted in blue - and you can hover over it to see your comments.

The annotation will stay with the piece of text  - whether you're viewing it in the original source or encountering it in a node.

Annotation tools allow you to connect spontaneous ideas with the data that produced the thought, and later in your iterative work, to be reminded of earlier thoughts and reasoning. (Lewins and Silver, 2007: 59)

Then, you can click the little quote icon to display the annotations for a source - and select the one you want to go to.

What's the different between an annotation and a memo?

If you want more space to reflect (for example to summarize a document, journal your progress, or clarify your thinking about a theme) - it's probably better to create a memo instead of an annotation.

Memos can be linked to the source or node that inspired them - they are the linchpin of robust research and we'll honor them in a future blog post.

Now, onto the 9 compelling reasons for using annotations...

1. Active reading

Not many people take notes when they're reading for pleasure but 'reading to learn' is a different process altogether. Your brain is on high alert, making observations and asking all kinds of questions  - sorting the wheat from the chaff:

These mental gymnastics are the hallmark of active reading - a great way to approach your data before you begin the more disciplined process of coding it.

Your first reading of a source should be rapid but purposeful (Bazeley and Jackson, 2013: 34)

You can capture all of these early gems in annotations without being overly distracted by your node system or analytical framework.

2. Define terms

If your source material contains unfamiliar words, colloquialisms or obscure acronyms - you can use annotations to provide definitions and clarifications.

The next time you read the text (either in the original source or as part of a node) you can just hover over the term to see the definition. This can be especially useful if you work in a team.

3. Tag text for follow-up

Active reading can often result in a healthy to-do list. There will be things you need to follow up.

  • Where is the town this participant is talking about?
  • Should probably check out this influential author.
  • Is there a government policy related to this?

Annotations are a perfect way to tag content for follow-up.  If you preface these annotations with the word "Follow-up" then you can sort the annotation list and easily see what needs doing.

If you want to see what needs following up across all your sources, you can click on the Annotations folder in Navigation View (again, you can sort this list to see all annotations prefaced with the word "Follow-up").

4. Comment on body language or intonation

If an interview participant answers a question sarcastically or hesitantly - this might be an important observation that you want to record in an annotation.

Further down the track, you could search for all the annotations in a particular source that contain the word 'sarcastic' or 'hesitates' - then maybe ask yourself why this interview participant hesitates when answering certain questions.

Annotations are a great way to capture information about intonation, body language and other contextual details.

5. Make notes for other team members

When you create an annotation, it is marked with your initials - this can be helpful if you work in a team.

You can comment on material written by another team member or point out text that might be of interest to a colleague.

6. Take the load off your node system

It's easy to think that NVivo is all about coding, coding, coding.

But not every interesting passage belongs in a node - sometimes an annotation will do the trick.

Maybe a passage of text is thought-provoking but not particularly relevant to your research question. You can annotate the passage to record your interest without cluttering-up your node system.

You could even use an annotation to explain why you coded a passage at a particular theme node - when you explore the node, you can hover over the annotation for a quick reminder of your early thinking.

7. Signpost a source

You can use annotations as a way to navigate a document.

For example - if the author of an article is mounting an argument, you can use an annotation to sign-post each new point.

Then, you can open the list of annotations and easily jump to each point.

This gives you a handy summary of what you've read as well as providing a quick way to navigate a document.

8. Combine annotations with hyperlinks

You can select text and add a hyperlink - this is really useful if you want to link a passage to related material on the web or a file on your computer.

If you want to add a quick summary of the linked content, you could use an annotation.

9. Annotate to highlight problems

If you're working with interviews or focus groups that have been transcribed or translated, then you might want to use annotations to highlight any issues, gaps or misunderstandings.

Are you on board?

These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg - you can use annotations in any way that suits your project and methodology.

Stay conscious, self-reliant and sceptical, and at all times use the annotation tools imaginatively to write reflexively and reflectively about what you find and what is missing during your exploration of the data. (Lewins and Silver, 2007: 78)

This video gives you a brief and really useful heads-up about how to work with annotations in NVivo for Mac:

Maybe you've developed you own strategy or ideas for using annotations?

If so, we'd love to hear about them in the comments below.


Richards, L (2009). Handling Qualitative Data A Practical Guide.

Bazeley, P & Jackson, K (2013). Qualitative Data Analysis with NVivo.

Lewins, A & Silver, C (2007). Using Software in Qualitative Research: A Step-by-Step Guide.