Aphorisms on Annotations

Annotated Bibliographies: An annotated bibliography is a list of sources that you have read and plan to include in a research project. An annotated bibliography is made up of a series of annotations, or brief notes about each of the sources. The design and length of an annotation vary based on its purpose and the discipline you’re working in. Sometimes you will see annotations that are only one or two sentences, but usually a good annotation runs between 200-400 words.

Headnotes: Some annotated bibliographies include headnotes, brief paragraphs that summarize and give an overview on the general topic of the annotated bibliography. To write a headnote, you should return, after writing your annotations, to the beginning of your document to write an introduction that summarizes the key issues that are covered in the annotations. This introduction will help you see how your texts are “talking” to one another, which will allow you finally to revise your annotations to include points of agreement and disagreement (i.e., where the essays complement each other and where they contradict each other).

Kinds of Annotations: Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of annotations: descriptive, evaluative, and prospective:

  • Descriptive Annotations: As the name implies, a descriptive annotation describes, summarizes, or analyzes an article or book – especially its evidence and argument – without rendering a judgment about it.
  • Evaluative Annotations: An evaluative annotation not only describes but also evaluates the source, identifying its strong and/or weak points.
  • Prospective Annotations: What I call a prospective annotation describes and evaluates a source but also explains how you the writer will be using this source in the paper or project you’re working on.

Descriptive Annotations for Understanding: In my courses, I usually ask for descriptive annotations because I like for students to view annotations as part of the reading process. As always, writing helps you understand what you’re reading. I encourage students to hold off on evaluation for a bit because it’s best to collect all of your information first (or at least as much of it as possible) before you start making claims about it – but be aware that in other classes you may be asked to do other kinds of annotations. As always, the key is to be aware of the situation so that you can ask your instructor what the requirements and expectations are.

Writing Descriptive Annotations: For a quick and clean structure for a descriptive annotation, you might include the following elements of academic argument (which are described in more detail below):

  • Citation
  • Author
  • Text
  • Problem
  • Method
  • Argument
  • Evidence
  • Implications

Emphasize What's Unique: A good annotation will not necessarily include all of the above information; the best annotations draw out the aspects that make a book or article unique and develop quality accounts of these points.

Mirror the Source in the Annotation: Nor does an effective annotation need to work sequentially through this information; often a writer will use the organization of the book/article to structure the annotation, touching upon relevant points from above as they appear in the course of the source.

Adjust as Needed: Moreover, in annotations, it is often possible to combine categories of academic information into single sentences, such as a single sentence that covers both text and method, or a single sentence that covers both method and argument.

The Process of Writing an Annotation: Here's my four-step proces for writing annotations: 

  1. Marginalia: Start out by reading a source and making marginal notes on the elements of academic argument (question/problem, method, thesis, evidence, analysis, counter, etc.) as I come across them. That will help me understand the totality of a source on its own terms.
  2. Diagram of Evidence: Create a diagram of the kinds of evidence used in the source (textual, historical, citational).
  3. Quotes for Major Elements: Pull out quotations for the major elements of academic argument associated with the introduction (question/problem, method, thesis, stakes), as well as the main assertions for each major section in the body of the essay.
  4. Write it Out: Synthesize and summarize all this information into a 300-word paragraph that follows the below structure. 

The Elements of an Annotation: Below are some specific thoughts on the elements of academic argument to include in a 300-word annotation:

  • Citation: Your citational style will depend upon the discipline in which you're writing. Make sure you get it right!
  • Author: Not even a sentence: just give a clause about someone’s academic specialty en route to your statement of that writer’s text.
    • No one cares where someone is a professor nor even the fact that someone is a professor (so don’t say, “Peter C. Herman, Professor of English at San Diego State University, addresses …”); what people care about is someone’s academic specialization (e.g. “Peter C. Herman, a scholar of sixteenth-century literature and culture, addresses …”). One way to provide some information about the author is to mention a book or article he or she has written that’s relevant to the topic at hand.
  • Text: One sentence (or the rest of a sentence) detailing the topic under consideration.
    • Try to mention the material as well as the conceptual aspects of the text – e.g., “Shakespeare scholar Julia Lupton addresses the imagery of circumcision in The Merchant of Venice.”
  • Problem: One sentence articulating the critical conversation or debate entered into by the author (only if applicable).
    • If, for example, a writer is disputing or extending an earlier study, this is where you would describe that maneuver.
  • Method: One sentence articulating the interpretive approach or theoretical position used to unpack the text (only if that approach or position is noteworthy, sophisticated, or specialized).
    • You don’t need to say, for example, that someone gathers a great deal of fascinating evidence and analyzes it in compelling ways that really support his or her thesis. In theory, that’s what all academic writing does. But you would want to note if, say, an author used Wittgenstein’s philosophy to unpack Milton’s poetry.
  • Argument: One or two sentences providing a summary of the main idea.
    • If you’re going to quote in an annotation, this is the place to do it.
    • If you’re aiming for a shorter annotation, you can skip the text statement, and even the problem and method statements, and go straight into the argument (e.g., an annotation could begin, “Literary critic Martin Harries argues that …”).
  • Evidence: One to three sentences summarizing the information presented in support of the argument.
    • Try to give an overview and synthesis of the evidence as well as one particularly poignant example, if possible.
  • Implications: One sentence describing what’s at stake in the argument, either according to the author or according to yourself: why does it matter? who cares? how did/will it impact an academic field?