How to Write a Preliminary Bibliography

A research project is like a fishing expedition: you reel in some sources, keep some and throw back others. As your project unfolds, the relevancy of your sources becomes clearer. In fact, if you work like a lot of students, your source page may the very last page you finesse. Until that time, it’s important to keep track of your sources by compiling a preliminary bibliography. Taking a few minutes to document information as you gather your “catches” will save you untold time in trying to create a source page at the end of your research project.

Step 1

Find out whether your research paper should follow the style of the Modern Language Association or the American Psychological Association. This way, you can place each source in the appropriate style as you compile your bibliography page. MLA calls the bibliography page “Works Cited” while APA calls it “References.”

Step 2

Create separate headings on your preliminary bibliography page for “online sources,” “books,” “periodicals” and “consumer publications.” Then consult MLA or APA for the correct citation style for each source and put an example for each underneath the heading. Eliminate these examples as your bibliography page develops, but this important time-saver will allow you to simply follow the style example rather than consult the MLA or APA stylebook every time you make a new entry to your working bibliography.

Step 3

Leave room under each bibliographical entry so that you can explain the source’s relevance or importance to your paper. Call this your “source rationale.” Write succinct notes that you can decipher later, such as “Good definition of XXX in chapter 3” or “Must have description of YYY experiment in chapter 7.” This step will force you to spend a few minutes evaluating a source as you proceed with your project rather than facing an “ocean” of books and articles at the end.

Step 4

Follow the structure of your preliminary bibliography dutifully and for every source you gather. Be sure to copy and paste the URL address of online sources into your preliminary bibliography. Do not run the risk of writing them manually because you may unwittingly miss a character or two that may thwart your ability to locate the source later.

Step 5

Compile more sources than you need for each category so that you can scrutinize them later to make your final choices. Be judicious in your final choices. If you cannot validate how a source would enhance your paper, do not include it in your preliminary bibliography.

Step 6

Eliminate the headings when you are finished with your preliminary bibliography and alphabetize your author sources by the last name, as both MLA and APA style require. You may wish to copy and paste your “source rationale” notes to another document, especially if your teacher expects you to explain why you chose the sources you did.


Creating categories for your sources will allow you to both follow the guidelines established for your paper and give a quick progress report on your paper to your teacher. Teachers often require a certain number of print and online sources, and temporarily listing your sources by category will allow you to easily assess your work-in-progress.

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