Sunday, April 28, 2013

Scripture Master Tip #18: Dos and Don'ts of Scripture Marking

18.  The Dos and Don'ts of Scripture Marking

What do I need?

1.  Your scriptures:  It is common for me to encounter resistance from people when I bring up the virtues of scripture marking because they feel that it is somehow improper to write in these holy books.  Don't be afraid to write in your scriptures.  They were given to us so that we could study them and love them until we wear them out.  As long as you approach your marking with care and respect I think you will find it to be an invaluable part of your scripture study. That being said I do recommend owning a nice set that you can leave unmarked, and buying a cheap paperback set that you can use for marking.  That way you can mark up multiple sets without breaking the bank, and you can experiment with different marking techniques without worrying about ruining your nice set.  Some people move on to a new set when they are done marking their old one, and some even give their old marked copy away, and there is nothing wrong with that but I think that what you do with your scriptures after you are done marking them depends greatly on the precise way in which you marked your set and what you plan to use it for.  My scriptures are filled with notes and references that make them irreplaceable in my eyes, and they represent years of work.  I use them every day and I would never dream of giving them away.  On the other hand I have a couple of copies of the Book of Mormon that I have color coded according to a certain system.  For example, in one book I have marked all the references to Christ, every instance where Christ is speaking, and every Christ-like attribute of that I could find.  I plan to give these to my children when I have some (children), mainly to inspire them to mark up their own set according to the same system.

2. Colored pencils or pens:   If you decide to use a pen to mark your scriptures, be careful which pen you choose because many pens use ink that will bleed through or smear and render a portion of your page illegible, to say nothing of the notation you were trying to make.  Also, the paper they use to make scripture pages tends to be somewhat delicate, and a pen or a pencil that is too sharp may cause you to tear your page.  This is another reason to use a cheap set to mark in.  In my own studies I use a cheap red ballpoint pen and a box of twelve Crayola colored pencils.  I use the pen because I need my notes to be sharp and readable even when I have to write in extremely small print in order to cram a tiny notation into a small space on the page.  A standard graphite pencil, like a no. 2 pencil, would just smear all over and make my pages grubby and gray.  A colored pencil doesn't have the clarity of line that I need in order to write clearly, even when I do not have to write in miniature.  The cheap BIC pen that I use provides that sharp line, and I have selected it carefully because it does not bleed through the page or smear all over (unless my scriptures get wet, but on the whole I try to avoid that.)

What shouldn't I use?

1.  Highlighter markers:  I actually do not recommend using day-glo highlighter markers, but mostly because they will tend to bleed through the thin pages in your scriptures.  They do sell colored pencils that provide that bright day-glo highlight if you like that sort of thing, but I feel that the overly bright colors actually make it harder to read your scriptures.  Overly bright markings can become distractions instead of highlights when your markings begin to draw attention to themselves instead of drawing attention to the passages you intended to highlight.

2.  Stickers or glue-in inserts:  Stickers can cause your pages to rip, especially after your scripture set starts to get a little older.  Even the relatively mild wear and tear of basic transportation and page turning can eventually cause stickers and inserts to tear the pages to which they are attached.  I don't like stickers in scriptures because they are usually covering something else (something important), plus when they wear off and fall out they leave annoying sticky residue that can cause your pages to stick together, or allow dirt to stick to your scripture page.  Glue-in inserts, although they are a seminary mainstay, are equally odious, and they tend to cover even more of the page to which they are affixed.  When you have a lot of them they tend to make your scriptures hard to read, and they tend to get in the way when you are trying to find a passage.  I think that you should use those useful inserts as bookmarks instead of gluing them in and effectively defiling your scriptures.  Sticky notes are slightly less objectionable, because the glue isn't as strong, and they aren't terrible big, but they tend to fall off after a while, and your scriptures become a cluttered mess if you use too many of them.  I have also seen rub-on inserts that consist of pictures of gospel scenes or notable scenes from the scriptures.  These are nice I suppose, but don't put them in your scriptures--they obscure the text, and if you already find the text to be somewhat obscure and difficult to grasp these pictures will not help.  Don't decorate your scriptures like that text book you had in junior high school.  Anything you put in or on your scripture pages should tend toward simplifying and enhancing you experience in the scriptures.

3.  You should also avoid stick-on scripture quick reference tags:  They may seem helpful at first, but they have all of the same downsides as stickers, plus, as you become more conversant with the scriptures, and no longer need them to help you to find the section of the text that you are looking for, they mainly tend to get in the way.  I used them in the first set that I marked extensively, and they were useful when I was starting out, but they quickly turned in to a hindrance, and after much use they started to tear my pages.  Eventually the annoyance the tags caused me was a large factor in my decision to discard my old set and start marking a new set.

How should I go about marking my scriptures?

There are any number of ways and an equally endless number of combinations of ways that you can mark your scriptures.  This depends largely on your personal preference--mark your set in a way that makes sense to you, and which you can easily understand when you return to that section of the text on a later occasion.

“As used in the sense of marking the scriptures, the word mark means ‘to designate, set apart, identify, distinguish’ or ‘to indicate, express, or show by a mark or symbol.’ In a general sense, anything added to the printed scripture is considered a mark. Such marks might take the form of lines, circles, letters, numbers, symbols, or anything else tending to designate or distinguish” (Daniel H. Ludlow, Marking the Scriptures, 15).

“There are a number of plans for underlining scriptures. They vary somewhat and should suit the individual. The important thing is to underline them and make marginal notes of some kind so you can find them again....I almost never read a borrowed book. I don’t like to read borrowed books because I don’t want to read a book without underlining things I want to remember. Since one doesn’t underline someone else’s book, I feel that if a book is worth reading, it is worth owning. The exception, of course, is in the library, and there a longer process of taking notes is necessary....So underline your books and make your notes while you’re thinking about it. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent going back to try to locate something I could have found very quickly if I had regularly followed this procedure. I do much better now than I did before” (Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently, 166).
"How do you personally use the scriptures? Do you mark your copy? Do you put notes in the margin to remember a moment of spiritual guidance or an experience that has taught you a profound lesson?"  (Richard G. Scott, "The Power of Scripture," Ensign, Nov. 2011).
Marking your scriptures is an essential part of searching and studying and if you can develop a system that works for you it will do much to improve your understanding of and appreciation for the scriptures.  Remember that anything you do to mark your scriptures should enhance your ability to study your scriptures and not detract from it; therefore it behooves you to use a system that is neat and clean and which does not obscure the text too much.  Too many scribbles and illegible notes will only detract from your ability to study your scriptures properly, and thus you should avoid cluttered and/or disorganized marking systems.

1)  Write notes and scripture references in the margins:  This is a big part of my own marking system, and it is also recommended by Preach my gospel (the manual that the missionaries use):
"Mark your scriptures and make notes in them. In the margins write scripture references that clarify the passages you are studying" (Preach My Gospel, p. 23).
Creating your own system of cross references is an excellent way to make (and record) connections between concepts and doctrines as you read. (The value and importance of which I explained in Tip # 17).  Doing this also allows you to quickly access your own personal list of related scriptures on any given subject, and your notes can help you to respond quickly to a question regarding a particular topic or subject.  In addition, I often find a reference that I am looking for by remembering a related reference and looking that one up because I know that I have likely written the reference that I am actually looking for in the margin adjacent to the passage that I can recall off the top of my head.  I find this system to be incredibly useful, and there is much satisfaction in finding your own connections and relationships between scripture passages.  Do not just assume that the footnotes (like the ones in the LDS version of the scriptures) contain all you need to know about scriptures related to the one you are studying.  Apart from being intellectually lazy, which I absolutely despise, relying on the footnotes as a crutch (or worse, using them as an excuse to get out of work) is foolish because the footnotes were not designed to be all-encompassing or exhaustive.  They were designed to be a jumping off point for your own studies, to give you a place to start looking so that you can make discoveries and connections on your own.  If you will study in this way you will find countless connected or related references that are not anywhere in the footnotes, and that you will not be able find by using the topical guide.  You can only ferret out these connections through diligent study and sincere pondering.

Any notes that you put into your scriptures should be short and succinct.  They should be things of great significance that can be communicated in a few words or less.  Anything that cannot be written in a brief succinct phrase should be recorded in a study journal that you keep with your scriptures.

2)  Underline or mark specific words:  I actually do not recommend underlining an entire verse (unless you are color-coding, which I'll talk about later).  Instead you should underline only the most important or central phrase or idea in order to make it stand out from the rest of the text.  When I use this technique I do it most often because a single verse or passage contains several important ideas and I wish to differentiate one from the others.  I therefore may use several different markings to highlight specific concepts in a particular passage or verse.  For instance I may circle one word to make it stand out in a section that I have already underlined.

You may also consider drawing a box around a verse or a group of verses in order to highlight a specific passage without making a wall of color.  This is especially useful for separating or differentiating between parables or principles that are situated next to each other in the same chapter, but are not necessarily related.  Conversely you can also use boxing to group related concepts which are not situated immediately next to each other in the body of the text.  For example you might draw a box around the parable of the sower (in Matthew chapter 13), and then draw another box around Christ's explanation of that parable a handful of verses later in order to visually connect the two related passages.  When I am marking a church manual I will occasionally use corner brackets instead of a box, largely because corner brackets represent less visual clutter when I am trying to read, but the principle is the same.

3)  Use connecting lines or arrows:  When you do highlight a specific word or concept in a passage, there is often a related concept or phrase somewhere nearby on the page or the one facing it when the book is open.  This is also useful if you are trying to connect a passage with a related note in the footnotes.  Circle or underline the specific phrases or concepts that you wish to connect and then use a ruler to draw a straight line between them.  This will help you to highlight an important connection or pattern for future reference.  This technique should be used only sparingly, as too many lines can begin to obscure the text, and your marking will begin to lose some of its impact.  Also, be sure to use a straight line whenever possible because a curvy or wavy line can start to look messy, and once again your mark loses some of its impact because you should convey the importance of the connection by the using a clean and direct line that doesn't wander or deviate.

4)  Color-coding:  There are a lot of ways that you can use color coding to help you highlight your scriptures.  I mentioned before that I have a copy of the Book of Mormon in which I have underlined every passage containing the words of Christ, the words of prophets concerning Christ, and Christ-like attributes in a different color.  You might find this exercise (or a similar one) useful, especially if you are still a beginner when it comes to studying your scriptures.  Completing this exercise at least once will help you to train your brain to truly examine the scriptures in order to glean sense and meaning instead of just looking at them in a superficial way and taking what they say for granted.

As you mature in your grasp of the scriptures you may wish to adapt the color coding technique to your own uses and preferences.  For instance I employ a limited form of color coding in my current set.  I only highlight the verse number according to a color code, and not the whole verse.  I use pencils to mark different colors to represent different groupings of principles (I organized these groupings roughly according to the contents of the missionary lessons.  Red is for the restoration lesson, and includes things like the nature of God, scriptures concerning the need for priesthood authority, and references to the great apostasy.  Blue is for concepts relating to the plan of salvation, such as the pre-earth life, or the resurrection, and green is for the gospel lesson, which includes such doctrines and principles as faith, repentance, and baptism. I use yellow for the principles in the commandments lesson, like the law of chastity, keeping the Sabbath day holy, and tithing.  Orange is for the principles in the new member lessons that are not contained in the other lessons, as well as important doctrinal points that do not fall directly into one of the other lessons, like the Abrahamic covenant, or Paul's allegorical interpretation of the story of Hagar and Ishmael and Sara and Isaac in Galatians chapter four.  I use purple for uplifting passages or spiritual thoughts that similarly do not fall within the realm of one of the lessons.

5)  Use symbols/shapes:  Within the categories that I have grouped by color, I use symbols and shapes to differentiate between principles.  For instance, a red triangle signifies an authority scripture, or one that deals with the calling and purpose of prophets and apostles in some way, and a red star represents a scripture dealing with the great apostasy.  A blue star represents a scripture that talks about the atonement, and a blue square represents the fall.  I use stars, squares, circles, triangles, dashes, and a few other shapes and symbols.  I find them incredibly useful, if only because they help me to organize my own thoughts as I decide how to represent the verse I am marking.  I do have a warning for those who employ a system of symbols and shapes.  Avoid making your system too complex.  You will forget what some of the shapes mean, and then the sense and organization of your whole system will start to fall apart because you will start using the wrong shapes in the wrong places.
Everyone is different, and you may choose to adapt some of my tips, or you may elect to disregard them, depending on your preference.  What is clear however is that no matter what system you prefer, you do need to develop a system of some kind that allows you to mark and annotate the scriptures if you want to become a scripture master.  Studying and marking your scriptures can be fun and exciting, and you can derive great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment from the work that you put into your scriptures.  Your understanding and enjoyment of the scriptures will grow by leaps and bounds as you carefully examine and mark them and if you keep with it you will surely become a scripture master.  Elder David A. Bednar is a noted scripture master, and more importantly he is an apostle of Jesus Christ.  He has developed and perfected his own system of scripture marking over his lifetime, and he clearly grasps the importance of scripture marking as a tool for turning your scriptures into what he calls "a repository of knowledge."  Watch this Q&A session he did with a small group of young seminary students in which he details his suggestions and his own preferences when it comes to creating a scripture marking system, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the pages of his own set of scriptures.

Next tip: Scripture Master Tip #19: Define Words and Terms


  1. I have found the Pigma Micron pens are fantastic for marking scriptures. You can get them in a variety of colors and they come in many sizes. My favorite is the ultra fine (.005mm tip size) so you can write extra small and still have it be legible.

  2. This is probably the best scripture marking guide online. Way to go. Study journals are the best so you don't clutter your margins with too much writing. I second the pigma micron 005 pen for writing in the margins. Also check out the code of many colors for all those missionaries who memorized their discussions. It's a great color coding system.


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