Writing an abstract

Writing an abstract is an important skill, and you will need to do it time and time again, for theses, conferences, posters, grant applications as well as papers. Undergraduate and Masters students may be set a task to write an abstract as part of their degree, and will need to write one for their dissertation. People will normally read an abstract before putting in the effort to read a paper, so you need to make sure that your abstract entices people in. An abstract should succinctly summarise your work, but they can be tricky to write. So, how do you write a good abstract?

In general, your abstract should cover why you did the work, what problem you were trying to solve, how you did the work (what methods you used), your key results, over-arching conclusions and the important, take-home message. You are aiming to impress upon your readers your overall findings, and to make them want to delve deeper and read your paper / project / report / thesis. Ideally you want a cite-able, quotable nugget of information that will draw people in.

Your abstract should be the last thing you write. You will need to know your final conclusions and precise implications of your work, so leave it until the end and then work on really selling it to your readers.

Why

Set the scene. Write, in one sentence, why the work is important and summarise the rationale. You need to show why the work is necessary and interesting.

What

Set out the clear aim of your project. What were you trying to do? This aim should be a single, succinct sentence. You may also outline the objectives of your work here as well.

How

Add a single sentence outlining the key methods used. This is not the place to give detail, but people need to know the important techniques applied in your research.

Results

Now is the place to add in the key results you found in your research. They should be succinct, accurate, clear and precise. Try to give quantifiable numbers and values, and clear data. Many people may only scan the abstract before deciding whether to read the paper, or even more importantly, to cite the results, so here is the place to give them the goodies. Avoid arm-waving, vague statements, and you don’t have space for the caveats, but you should be able to substantiate your statements.

Conclusions

This is the place to make a statement about the take-home message of your project. What are the broader conclusions? How does this sit within your broader research framework? What are the implications of your research and findings?

General considerations

Abstracts generally come with a clear word limit (usually 200 to 350 words). Make sure you stick to this, and revise your abstract early and often. It should be the best bit of your paper – you want to draw people in.

You could consider what you think people might be searching for within databases or the Internet, and including those search terms in your abstract. That might help your abstract be more easily found.

Use simple sentences and avoid abbreviations and acronyms, which are a barrier to understanding. Write words out in full.

You may want to assign ‘Highlights’ or ‘Keywords’, which are sometimes requested by a journal. ‘Keywords’ can be used to assign editors. ‘Highlights’ are a very abbreviated abstract, usually three to four bullet points. You could follow the pointers above for your ‘Highlights’, which should arouse people’s interest and make them want to read your paper.

Got a hot tip on how to write a killer abstract? Add a comment in the box below.

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