In the abstract

Writing a good abstract - a brief summary, precis or synopsis that appears at the front of an article - is important. It may be the only thing the reader sees, besides the title of your paper. This is because many event organisers only publish abstracts in conference proceedings. The same applies with journal articles - most publishers, particularly those who put up paywalls, will often allow you a free look at just the journal abstracts. The abstract is therefore quite an important device to promote your article. Get it right, and make it eyecatching, and you will often 'hook' people into reading the full article. Get it wrong, and you may lose your audience.

Several people have asked me to share my ideas and advice on writing abstracts for conference papers and journal articles. If you disagree with these suggestions and/or have alternative ones, you are very welcome to post your ideas and views below in the comments box. I'm sticking my neck out here, as there are sure to be objections about some of the following, but this is my blog and these are my ideas, and they are here to promote some discussion - so here goes:

I always write my abstract last, after I have written at least a full draft of the paper. The reason I do this is because often, my paper doesn't take its full shape until it's close to being finished, and I find it easier to write the abstract then. Alternative advice is to write your abstract first, because it can give you structure, but if you really want some scaffolding for structure, you could use sub-headings which can be removed later if you wish to do so.

There are of course many variations on the abstract, but essentially, any good abstract is fairly concise, and contains five key points (which could be written in as little as 4 or 5 sentences):

1: The background and context of the study.
2: The aims and purposes of the study; may also include research question(s) or hypothesis.
3: The method used to answer the research question(s); may also include brief details of the type and number of participants; sample size.
4: Summary of key research results/findings.
5: How the results contribute to knowledge of the field; main conclusions and/or recommendations.

So there you have it - a formula for a brief abstract that is applicable for use in the reporting of most research reports or academic studies. One final note - keep it brief, because most conference organisers, journal editors and book publishers will reject long and rambling abstracts.

Image source by Pascal Klein

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In the abstract by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


- said…
Just great!
- said…
Just awesome!
Sarah B. said…
Thanks for this. I've bookmarked it and will come back to it once I start work on ALT-C abstracts / proposals.
Terry said…
very good advice, Steve, some of which could also be applied to other sorts of extract. for example, I publish article summaries on the front page of my blog, and I have to try to make these interesting in order to entice people to click on "read more". I guess the bottom line is that ALL writing should be to the point and interesting, because nobody is compelled to read what you've written!

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