06 February 2014

Bible Marking Tutorial Series: Marking A Book Study

Dear Lissy,

We've spent the last three tutorials discussing pencil marks I make as I read, listen to, or pray God's Word.  Those are mostly spontaneous marks that keep my attention focused -- snapshots of my journey through the Word, if you will.  I want to transition today to purposeful, permanent marking for future use.  These marks are more like putting up trail markers.

After I've invested hundreds of hours into an inductive study of a book of the Bible, or listened carefully through months of a sermon series, what are some of the ways I expect to use that information again?
  • I expect the Holy Spirit to bring it to mind often as He conforms me into Christ's image.
  • I expect to use that material in discipleship and teaching, especially with my kids.
  • I expect to expand my ability to share the gospel effectively with others.
  • I expect the Holy Spirit to use the words and principles I've studied to speak words of encouragement and exhortation to other believers.
  • I expect the material I've studied in one book to unlock truths in other parts of the Bible.
  • I expect that material to deepen and enrich my relationship with Jesus Christ -- I should know more about the character and person of my God after a study than before.
  • I expect the Holy Spirit to use those now-familiar portions to enrich my prayer life.
  • I expect to be able to use the book I've studied to combat the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.
Now the big question for our tutorial series:  How do I mark my Bible so that
  1. I can remember and use this study without  having to constantly access my notes, AND
  2. Still leave the text clean and readable?  (Remember:  Less is More)
Short answer?  Color and Annotation 


Color is by far the most popular method for marking a Bible. Most people make up a key of a dozen or so colors with each standing for a Bible-wide theme:  God, Jesus, Sin, Prayer, etc.  They eagerly color any verse in one of their categories when they come across them in their reading.  While those are all important doctrines, I rarely use my Bible in that fashion.  I can't remember the last time I leafed through my Bible to review the doctrine of Sin.  I usually use resources from my library if I need to brush up on doctrine. 

Instead, I believe color works best within a book. Each of the following should be shaded in a separate color.  Make a key at the beginning or end of the book for future reference if desired, but you'll probably find that just having like items shaded the same color is enough of a trigger without making an official key.  Save red for later -- that's the one color I use through the whole Bible.

The Tools... 
  • Watercolor pencils lay down nice color and most colors erase completely.  
    • Test the color and erasability back in the concordance or a flyleaf before using on text.  
    • You may also want to test that color doesnt transfer onto the facing page by turning the page and rubbing your thumb over the highlighted area.  Play with the pencils a little until you are confident they'll work as expected.  Regular colored pencils have a waxy binder that makes it almost impossible to mark over the top of an area that's been highlighted.
    • Cheaper brands like General's (Walmart art section) or Crayola tend to work better in Bibles.  Higher quality brands have more pigment and stain or transfer more easily.  Prismacolor Col-Erase are a new favorite of mine.  Although not technically watercolor pencils, they aren't waxy.  They don't fully erase on most Bible paper.

  • Micron pens make permanent annotation easy.  Since I'm usually transferring a whole sermon series or inductive Bible study into my Bible at a single sitting, I can carefully place notes and marks so I don't need to erase.  Pencils also work fine, but using micron pens distinguish personal notes and marks from daily reading from study/preaching notes.  I prefer brown 03 tips, but use whatever color(s) and tip size suit you best.  Again, test these in the concordance or flyleaf for bleed and show through before you use them in the text.

Use color to...
  • Frame the key verse for the book, and place a key symbol beside it. I often disagree with my study Bible on which verse is the key verse.  If I've invested hundreds of hours into a book (or my pastor has), I choose the verse that brings the sermon series or study back to mind readily.
    Notice how framing the verse allows other words within the verse to still be marked.  I normally place the key in the line, but for photo purposes placed it in the margin.
  • Frame important verses that support the overall purpose and theme of the book. These verses typically either introduce or summarize major divisions within the book.  (Nails and goads in Ecclesiastes, Altars in Genesis, Hope in Titus)
  • Shade the key word/phrase every time it appears:  all in Colossians, joy in Philippians, under the sun in Ecclesiastes, for example.  Some books appear to have combination locks instead of keys, and you'll want to highlight 2 or 3 words; but try to find just one that you feel most embodies the spirit of the book.
Wow...that's it?  Yup.  These will each bring a great deal of the study back to mind, and annotation will take care of the rest.

Note:  If you live in a part of the world where colored pens or pencils are difficult to find or expensive, simply use a regular pencil to frame verses and box key words.  If you only use the box type markings for key verses and words, they'll still stand out.
Avoid the use of color for...
  • Every command, promise, exhortation, etc. 
  • Every occurrence of God, Jesus, Holy Spirit (ditto for place and people names)
  • Multiple key words:  Simply use a pencil to underline and number.
  • Every verse that would work well for soulwinning.
  • Bible-wide themes like anger or grace
  • Verses that deal with your own worst fights:  pride, anxiety, the tongue, etc. I put these on index cards and post them in the kitchen window above the sink or in the bathroom next to the mirror.
  • Inductive Bible study markings.
These are all great things to mark on Scripture worksheets or into your church notes, but your Bible will become so busy it's almost unreadable if you mark these all in your daily driver.


Annotation is adding notes to explain and clarify the text.  How much you use annotation will determine the type of Bible you use.  Many serious students use wide margin, journaling, or interleaved Bibles. Again, try to keep the text reasonably clear for future reading and study.  Use a symbol next to a word or verse (*,+,^, etc) to direct yourself to a note in the margin that begins with the same symbol if necessary.

Use annotation to mark...
  • Word definitions
  • Numbered lists, especially if they occur over several verses or even chapters.
  • Connecting verses or thoughts in different parts of the chapter or book.
  • Cross references.  I also cross reference to study binders or even books in my library, not just Bible passages.
  • Condensed statements of principle or truth.  
  • Explanations of difficult passages.
  • Diagrams 
  • Illustrations
  • Don't be afraid to use the large blank portions at the beginning and end of a book for introductory and summary notes.
Avoid annotation for...
  • Writing sermon notes directly into your Bible.  Most sermons can be annotated into the text in traditional ways that will be far more usable than having it in one chunk beside the text.
  • Journaling -- unless, of course, it's a journaling Bible.
    Here's a whole sermon (and some random color coding for good measure) in my college Bible.
Here's the same sermon, annotated and no random colors.  Notice that for long notes I used and asterisk or cross beside the text, and put the note in the bottom margin.  See how the text retains clarity & readability?
Remember how I mentioned at the beginning of this letter that I wanted to use my study for personal growth, discipleship, education, encouragement, exhortation, counselling, soulwinning, and combat?
The annotation needs to be such that when the Holy Spirit brings a passage to mind, I can instantly refresh my memory and understanding of that passage.  Very often I'll think or say something that instantly pulls me up short, and I think:  "Now, I remember hearing that in the Ecclesiastes series, but I can't remember just what was said..." and I flip back through to find it.  If I've written too much, I have a hard time finding anything.  Too little, and I'm forced back to my 1-1/2" ring binder of notes.  You'll find your own sweet spot as you study and then DO what you've learned.

Let's take a look at a page from my study Bible.  I was just starting to use a standard marking system when I was studying Titus, so I can show you why certain things don't work as well.
 What I did right here...
  • Key verse is boxed. 
  • Key word "good" is marked.
  • Small, neat lettering is easy to read and helps me remember my study.
  • Verse I use in gospel presentations is underscored in red, chained to the next logical verse, and there's a red edgemark in the margin so I can easily find it, even with my Bible closed.   That's another tutorial.
  • Text is still clear and readable.
  • Every mark on the page makes sense.  I don't have random colors or symbols cluttering the page.
What I've changed since...
  • I circled key words in red before completing my whole study.  Turns out there are two different Greek words translated "good" in Titus:  honorable and useful. I had to write which definition each word was above it.   If I had waited, I could have shaded each a different color or circled one and shaded the other.
  • I no longer use red except for soul winning, since I have the person I'm working with read the verse marked in red.
  • I wrote "Key Verse for Titus" in the margin using up valuable space.  I now draw a small key symbol in with the line and save the margins for notes.
  • I would now choose to put the meaning of the book title (Titus = "honorable") right at the beginning of the book.  Again, keep the margins clear and the text as readable as possible.
  • I used a very fine point gel pen that had been recommended by another Bible marking friend.  It shadowed and bled through my pages.  Micron pens are the gold standard for Bible marking right now.
In our next tutorial I'll show you how to create symbols that allow you to quickly and easily follow a theme through the Bible.   These may include verses and Bible stories that help you counsel a little one about whining and complaining, or verses on worry that will turn your own heart to prayer instead.   As you complete book studies, you'll want instant access to those verses.  It's tempting to simply shade them in a color:  purple for parenting or aqua for worry, but there's a neat way to mark these verses that makes them much easier to find at a moment's notice.


Bible Marking tutorial series starts here and continues here.

P.S.  Here's your first foray into Bible marking.  It got you into trouble, but I pray for you every time I run across one of your 2 year old scribbles.


  1. Wow this was a fantastic tut. I loved all of them. I want to see your symbols you use that you mentioned to teach in the next tut on the last paragraph. Please oh please post that. I just bought a new Bible today and have been looking up marking and highlighting the bible and yours is the best!
    I am starting fresh and wanna just re read a few books and study guides and have a simple system down for notes and such as explained through out your series. Thanks this was amazing!

    1. I owe you a big thank you, Yolanda. I'd written the rough draft of the last tutorial letter and never edited and published it. I'll try to get that out tomorrow, but it will be out by next week.

    2. I am beyond excited! I want to print each of these out to save for my children to read and look over. I looked over your inductive study guide but I truly enjoy the simplicity of this tut on marking your bible! Thank you so much!

  2. What a wonderful legacy for your precious daughter. I am excited to try some of these techinques in my own Bible Study Times. Thank you for so generously sharing your wisdom in these areas.

  3. I have dived into bible marking again based on your plan and want to start color coding. Couple quick questions: 1) do you pick a different color for every book's main verse or passage? 2) I seem to have issues in locating "the" main verses in a chapter of a book let alone the book itself

  4. I usually use yellow or red for the main verse and key words, but they can be any color. What I DONT do is use the same color for the same word/idea through the whole Bible (that's where I use symbols). My whole marking system is based on the idea of making study easy to recall when I return to a passage.
    Finding/recognizing key words is a learned skill. As hard as it is at first, the effort and frustration is worth it. If you have the money, invest in a Sunergos guided inductive Bible study. If not, look through my inductive Bible Study Guide set of posts here. You'll see a lesson on Key Verses and Key words. Praying for you as you "dive deep".