You get an email. Your professor just sent out the prompt for your next paper. Scanning through the document, you recognize the usual requirements. Times New Roman, 12-point font, clear thesis statement, yadda yadda yadda, etc. However, at the very bottom of the requirements, you see a pair of unfamiliar words: annotated bibliography. If you were like me back in English 1, you probably thought something along the lines of, “What in God’s name is an ‘annotated bibliography’?” Annotated bibliographies can stress out even the best of students, especially since a lot of students master the art of the works cited pages by the time they reach college. Fret not, because we’re going to break down exactly what makes an annotated bibliography, why you need to know how to write one and how to write one.
After reading this, you’ll be writing annotated bibliographies in your sleep.
1. What’s an Annotated Bibliography?
First, let’s break this down. A bibliography is your list of sources, a.k.a, a fancy way to say references or works cited page. Great, we got that five-syllable word out of the way. Next, what’s an annotation? Think about the notes you write in the margins of books (or in the comments of Microsoft Word or a PDF Reader); you write your thoughts alongside your ideas about the reading. Put the two definitions together to get a loose definition of “a work cited page with comments.” Hopefully, breaking down the name helps you start understanding the ins and outs of annotated bibliographies, but let’s hear how professors describe them.
“It’s a list of secondary sources including full, bibliographic citations in whatever style you’re using (be consistent), coupled with a brief summary and assessment,” UCLA professor Marissa López said.
Alright, that makes sense. What else?
“An annotated bibliography contains citations from books, articles and other sources, as well as some additional information about the source: at the very least, a summary of the source’s argument, and likely some consideration of whether (and how) the source is relevant to a particular project or paper,” UCLA professor Dr. Megan Stephan said.
Awesome! Look at all of that variety in the types of sources you can pick from.
“It lists all sources students find while researching essays and cites them according to the format prescribed on the assignment, for example MLA or APA. The annotations are simply notes of summary or reference about the article to help students remember what the article was about and why they might use it in their essay,” Long Beach City College professor Anthony Starros said.
Let’s put all the definitions together. An annotated bibliography is a list of all your sources with notes summarizing each source and how you used them in your essay. See? It doesn’t sound so intimidating anymore, does it?
2. Why Make an Annotated Bibliography?
Yeah, why make one? I mean, the works cited page exists. We all know her very well. Annotated bibliographies seem like extra work; however, they fulfill a specific niche in writing papers—research papers, specifically.
“An annotated bibliography helps with research because it allows students to keep track of what they have read and what they learned from each source. A simple list of titles is a starting point for research, but it’s hard to remember why you read a particular source unless you provide yourself with annotations as reminders,” Stephan said. “If you’re working on an extended project, like a thesis or dissertation, or even on a topic loosely related to previous research, annotated bibliographies continue to be useful for as long as you continue to study the topic and stop you from duplicating labor.”
Imagine spending weeks on a research paper, compiling 20 sources (it happens, trust me). Then, finally, you get to page 22, coming up with the perfect support to back up your claim. But you can’t remember where you got it from. What sounds better? Looking through every source for the one piece of support you need or going through annotations? Sorry, works cited page; I got to side with Dr. Stephan on this one. Annotated bibliographies create steady foundations for a research project and a helpful guide to everything you researched for your project.
3. How Do You Write an Annotated Bibliography?
We all know why you came here. You know all about annotated bibliographies now, so let’s make one. First, how should you list your sources? Just like any other works cited page, it depends on the format. Depending on the assignment, you need to write your sources in MLA, APA, Chicago, or some other style the Apostles of Writing want us to suffer through. Don’t worry so much about this part. Your professor will tell you what style to use. Here’s a question you probably didn’t expect us to ask: when should you start your annotated bibliography? Since you got bigger fish to fry writing your paper, doing it last seems tempting. Don’t. Ideally, you should start it before you even start writing your paper. Why is that?
“An annotated bibliography is a document which organizes research that students may or may not use as support in an academic essay,” Starros said.
You need to include the sources that you actually use and the ones that you didn’t use. Again, why? Like I described in the previous section, annotated bibliographies don’t just list your sources. They track your research. You need to include the sources that almost made it into your paper and then explain why they didn’t make it in. Speaking of explaining, let’s discuss the trickier part of making an annotated bibliography: the annotating. How should you write your annotations? Well, we got some good news—or bad news if you like structure. Unless specified by your professor, there isn’t a correct way to write annotations. If your professor says write 150 words for each annotation, write 150 words. However, that doesn’t mean you should just write whatever garbage your exhausted brain can think of at 3 AM.
“An unhelpful annotation just lists a bunch of information, doesn’t connect it in a clear narrative and doesn’t address the effectiveness of the piece,” López said.
Remember: the annotations are for you. Why waste the opportunity to help yourself? So, let’s go over how to make a helpful annotation.
“The most basic annotations are summaries of a source’s main argument; more complex annotations may also offer summaries of secondary arguments, evaluations of arguments, and other editorial material that indicates not just what the source was about but what the reader makes of it,” Stephan said. “A helpful annotation will allow you to remember the main points of a source and what you thought of it when you read it; an unhelpful annotation will contain sketchy or vague information about the source that forces you to go back to the source in order to figure out what your annotation means.”
Professor López even provided some guide questions.
“What’s the topic, generally speaking? What question is at issue in regards to the topic? What position does the author take in relation to the question? What evidence do they offer to support their position? Did they convince you? Did they make a compelling argument? Why or why not?” López said.
A good annotation gives you everything you need to know about the source in a few neat sentences. For example, if you need to use a source because it contains two opposing arguments, summarize the two arguments. Only write about what you need and how it helps (or doesn’t help). Don’t feel like you must pay attention to minute details; keep everything concise. Give yourself enough information so that you won’t scratch your head trying to figure out how a source fits in your paper.
Hopefully, you’ll leave this guide with a new perspective on annotated bibliographies. Instead of thinking of them as an obstacle that’s keeping you away from sleeping after you finish your paper, think of them as your personal research assistant.