For some reason, annotated bibliographies strike fear in the hearts of many students. Annotated bibs are actually really easy and if you are even moderately interested in the subject at hand, they can be informative and enjoyable, as well.
Whatever your citation style is, it will be consistent throughout bib. No need to wonder where the date goes this time, it goes the same place it went last time. Everything that should be in italics is italicized the fourth time, just as it was the first. Easy. Stop fussing and just do it.
The annotations themselves vary, a bit. Often instructors provide their own requirements, but the two areas into which most annotations fall are a 1) brief review of the contents or 2) a brief description of how the contents relate specifically to your subject.
For a brief review of contents, simply describe the subject, methods, and results of the work. Since the majority of published research has these described in distinctly labeled sections, this should be simple and fast enough. If you find yourself struggling, give the description aloud and try pretending that you are describing it to a friend or, if it helps, even complaining about: “Why on earth would anyone do research on the effects of salt consumption in diabetic mice?” If you find yourself feeling like complaining, why not use it to your advantage!
The second variety of annotated bib can be a bit harder. Often, a writer in the research stage is entirely certain about their subject yet. They are still learning about the research and determining a course of action. Do not let this stop you! Write up the aspects that you believe will be relevant, if you nothing jumps out at you, choose the study’s primary outcome and write it up. It is OK if it changes later.
Remember that the point of the annotated bib is to learn what the available research says; do not be caught up in every word being a promise to which you will be held for the remainder of your project. It is a tool, not a hurdle.
Many writers struggle with developing their writing into a more appropriate academic style when they begin graduate school. There are many ways to improve your writing and developing an understanding of partial conclusions and how to use them is something that any writer will benefit from. However, for graduate students it is a necessity to achieve this level of professional understanding in their field.
Beginning writers are often given the task of “compare and contrast.” These assignments encourage writers to focus exclusively on sharp differences. Further, they encourage young writers to overstate differences, rather than comparing subtleties and developing a vision of the full relationship between the things being compared.
Writers who want to develop their writing past those simple comparisons need to develop their thinking beyond those simple comparisons. As your study of a field deepens, you will not be able to get away with describing perfect relationships of antagonism or cooperation. If you persist in that kind of thinking, you will not deepen your thinking. This does not mean adding “or not” either to your writing or your thinking. That the relationships between things are complex does not mean that we cannot know anything about them, it just means that what can be known is not necessarily universal or causal.
Being cautious means being careful, and the more intellectual care you take the more you will understand about your field. Eventually, it will make you better at what you do, whatever that is. Think of all the times you were taught that something was always this way, only to have to relearn that it was not the case. Consider how much of your college education was unlearning what you had been taught previously. In graduate school, you are to the point in your career where you should be teaching yourself much of the time. By now, not only should “always” and “never” be eliminated from your writing, it should be eliminated from your thinking.
When developing an idea for a paper, remember that there are almost never two sides to an issue. Usually, there are many, many different approaches to anything that affects large numbers of people. If you are investigating and comparing two ways of looking at something, be sure that you are clear about the fact that you are only examining two groups of ideas, do not pretend that those are the only ideas that exist.
The idea of “both sides” sometimes causes people to think that there are two sides when there is only one. This is often the case with odd and improbable conspiracy theories. Proponents of ideas like “there was no holocaust” will use this to insist that their opinion has to be given equal weight when, in fact, it’s absolutely ridiculous t take such an assertion seriously. While that is an extreme example, there are often cases where an argument or an element of an argument is opposed by ideas that have far more or far less logical or moral value. That does not mean that you can just say that an idea is less valuable and therefore it is true, but it is important to acknowledge that sometimes one prefers an idea that is less logical or ethical, but for some reason preferred. In short, it is better to be honest about the limitations of a given idea, belief, or approach. It will make you a better writer and, more importantly, a better thinker.
Beginning writers often struggle with developing a more properly academic style in their writing. A thoroughly traditional academic voice is not a reasonable goal for most students. It is not ideal or desirable, even among most academics, to write in such a way. Many beginning writers either write too informally, too much like their journal or blog, but another common error is aping a ‘high academic’ style that is nothing like the writer’s own style. The latter is often a painfully unreadable mishmash that is more pretentious than academic. The other reason a traditional academic voice is rarely a good goal is that few students will become academics. Most of us, even those who will gain a PhD and enter academia, will be communicating with a variety of people. The goal should be that your writing is clear and comprehensible to the actual people who will be reading it, not an imaginary genius. That does not mean accepting mistakes or being lazy about your writing style, however.
One simple tool is to use the spelling and grammar check in your writing program. That may seem silly or obvious, but any grader will tell you that students often fail to use this simple feature. Be sure to turn on the majority of the spelling and grammar features, and when the program flags something, do not just fix it or accept the suggested changes, look closely at what the program is telling you about your writing. These programs are not perfect and their suggestions are not always correct, but they can help show you where your writing is unclear. The spelling and grammar check features are not like the dishwasher, you cannot just turn them on and ignore the details, you need to be an active and engaged user for it to function properly.