How to write an annotated bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of source references that includes a short descriptive text (an annotation) for each source. It may be assigned as part of the research process for a paper, or as an individual assignment to gather and read relevant sources on a topic.

An annotated bibliography can fulfill various purposes, from simply describing the sources to evaluating them and describing their importance for your own research.

An example of an evaluative annotation in APA Style is shown below:

APA Style evaluative annotation

Kenny, A. (2010). A new history of Western philosophy: In four parts. Oxford University Press.

Kenny presents a broad history of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the present day. The book is divided into four periods: ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern. Each section begins with a chronological overview of the key thinkers, followed by chapters dedicated to each significant subfield in the period: metaphysics, political philosophy, God, etc. Kenny generally provides thorough and fair assessments of the major philosophers’ work, but is pointedly dismissive of Derrida and other critical theorists, significantly weakening the book’s coverage of “postmodern” philosophy.

You can easily create and manage your annotated bibliography with Scribbr’s free Citation Generator. Select the relevant source type, fill out the relevant fields, and add your annotation.

APA Citation Generator MLA Citation Generator

Step 1: Finding and selecting sources

The first step is to find appropriate sources. If the annotated bibliography is part of the research process for a paper, your sources will be those you consult and cite as you prepare the paper. Otherwise, the scope of your assignment and your choice of topic will guide you in what kind of sources to look for.

Make sure that you’ve clearly defined your topic, and then consider what keywords are relevant to it. List different variants of the relevant terms so that you don’t miss anything.

Use these keywords to search databases (e.g. JSTOR, Project MUSE, Google Scholar). See here for further guidance on keyword searching.

Sources can include journal articles, books, and other source types, depending on the scope of the assignment. Read the abstracts or blurbs of the sources you find to see whether they’re relevant to your topic, and try exploring the bibliographies of relevant sources to discover more. If a particular source keeps being cited, it’s likely to be important.

Step 2: Reading and evaluating

Once you’ve selected an appropriate range of sources, read through them, taking notes on each source that you can use to build up your annotations later. You may even prefer to write your annotations as you go, while each source is fresh in your mind.

What you’re looking for in the sources will depend on the kind of annotations you have to write. Consider the instructions you’ve been given or consult your instructor to determine what kind of annotations they’re looking for: descriptive, evaluative, or reflective.

  • Descriptive annotations: When the assignment is just about gathering and summarizing information, focus on the key arguments and methods of each source.
  • Evaluative annotations: When the assignment is about your evaluation of the sources, you should also assess the validity and effectiveness of these arguments and methods.
  • Reflective annotations: When the assignment is part of a larger research process, you need to consider the relevance and usefulness of the sources to your own research.

These specific terms won’t necessarily be used; the important thing is to understand the purpose of your assignment and pick the approach that matches it best.

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Step 3: Writing up your annotations

For each source, start by writing a full reference that gives the author, title, date, and other information. The exact format depends on the type of source (e.g., a book or journal article) and the citation style you’re using. The most common styles are APA, MLA, and Chicago.

The annotations themselves are usually between 50 and 200 words in length. This can vary depending on the word count of the assignment, the relative length and importance of different sources, and the number of sources you include, but try to aim for this as a guideline.

APA Style examples are shown below for the different types of annotation: descriptive, evaluative, and reflective.

Descriptive annotations

A descriptive annotation summarizes the approach and arguments of a source in an objective way, without attempting to assess their validity.

In this way, it resembles an abstract, but it differs in that you’re describing the source’s approach explicitly rather than just summarizing the ideas it expresses. You should never just replicate text from a source’s abstract, even though you’ll naturally cover similar ground.

The annotation example shown below describes an article about the relationship between business regulations and CO2 emissions.

APA Style descriptive annotation

Rieger, A. (2019). Doing business and increasing emissions? An exploratory analysis of the impact of business regulation on CO2 emissions. Human Ecology Review, 25(1), 69–86. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26964340.

Rieger gauges the environmental effects of pro-business regulation by assessing the relationship between business climate (as measured in a World Bank data set) and CO2 emissions in developing nations. She estimates a time-series cross-sectional Prais–Winsten regression model to test this relationship, and finds a statistically significant positive association between the two variables. Based on this, she argues that the promotion of business climate encourages environmental load displacement from developed to developing nations.

Evaluative annotations

An evaluative annotation also describes the content of a source, but it goes on to evaluate elements like the validity of the source’s arguments and the appropriateness of its methods.

For example, the following annotation describes, and evaluates the effectiveness of, a book about the history of philosophy.

APA Style evaluative annotation

Kenny, A. (2010). A new history of Western philosophy: In four parts. Oxford University Press.

Kenny presents a broad history of Western philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the present day. The book is divided into four periods: ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern. Each section begins with a chronological overview of the key thinkers, followed by chapters dedicated to each significant subfield in the period: metaphysics, political philosophy, God, etc. Kenny generally provides thorough and fair assessments of the major philosophers’ work, but is pointedly dismissive of Derrida and other critical theorists, significantly weakening the book’s coverage of “postmodern” philosophy.

Reflective annotations

A reflective annotation is similar to an evaluative one, but it focuses on evaluating the source’s usefulness or relevance to your own research.

Reflective annotations are often required when the point is to gather sources for a future research project, or to assess how they were used in an already-completed project.

The annotation below assesses the usefulness of a particular article for the author’s own research in the field of media studies.

APA Style reflective annotation

Manovich, Lev. (2009). The practice of everyday (media) life: From mass consumption to mass cultural production? Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 319–331. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/596645

Manovich’s article assesses the shift from a consumption-based media culture (in which media content is produced by a small number of professionals and consumed by a mass audience) to a production-based media culture (in which this mass audience is just as active in producing content as in consuming it). He is skeptical of some of the claims made about this cultural shift; specifically, he argues that the shift towards user-made content must be regarded as more reliant upon commercial media production than it is typically acknowledged to be. However, he regards web 2.0 as an exciting ongoing development for art and media production, citing its innovation and unpredictability.

The article is outdated in certain ways (it dates from 2009, before the launch of Instagram, to give just one example). Nevertheless, its critical engagement with the possibilities opened up for media production by the growth of social media is valuable in a general sense, and its conceptualization of these changes frequently applies just as well to more current social media platforms as it does to Myspace. Conceptually, I intend to draw on this article in my own analysis of the social dynamics of Twitter and Instagram.

Step 4: Getting the format right

Once you’ve written your annotations, it’s important to make sure they’re formatted according to the guidelines of whatever style guide you’re working with. Three common styles are covered below: APA, MLA, and Chicago.

APA

In APA Style, both the reference entry and the annotation should be double-spaced and left-aligned.

The reference entry itself should have a hanging indent. The annotation follows on the next line, and the whole annotation should be indented to match the hanging indent. The first line of any additional paragraphs should be indented an additional time.

The APA Citation Generator automatically formats your annotations when you download your bibliography.

APA annotated bibliography

MLA

In MLA, the Works Cited entry and the annotation are both double-spaced and left-aligned.

The Works Cited entry has a hanging indent. The annotation itself is indented 1 inch (twice as far as the hanging indent). If there are two or more paragraphs in the annotation, the first line of each paragraph is indented an additional half-inch, but not if there is only one paragraph.

If you’re using the MLA Citation Generator, your annotations will be correctly formatted when you download your bibliography.

MLA annotated bibliography

Chicago

In Chicago style, the bibliography entry itself should be single-spaced and feature a hanging indent.

The annotation should be indented, double-spaced, and left-aligned. The first line of any additional paragraphs should be indented an additional time.

Chicago annotated bibliography

Frequently asked questions about annotated bibliographies

What is an annotated bibliography?

An annotated bibliography is an assignment where you collect sources on a specific topic and write an annotation for each source. An annotation is a short text that describes and sometimes evaluates the source.

What types of sources should I use in an annotated bibliography?

Any credible sources on your topic can be included in an annotated bibliography, but you should usually focus on collecting journal articles and scholarly books. When in doubt, utilize the CRAAP test!

How do I write an annotation for a source?

Each annotation in an annotated bibliography is usually between 50 and 200 words long. Longer annotations may be divided into paragraphs.

The content of the annotation varies according to your assignment. An annotation can be descriptive, meaning it just describes the source objectively; evaluative, meaning it assesses its usefulness; or reflective, meaning it explains how the source will be used in your own research.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in comparative literature. He writes and edits for Scribbr, and reads a lot of books in his spare time.

2 comments

Donna Elliott
May 30, 2021 at 10:44 PM

If I use a quote in an annotation do I cite it normally or with just the page number for APA?

Reply

Jack Caulfield
Jack Caulfield (Scribbr Team)
May 31, 2021 at 3:03 PM

Hi Donna,

Assuming you're quoting the source the annotation is for, APA advises that it's generally not necessary to cite it. I would say if you're going to include citations at all, they should just consist of the page number in this case.

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