How to write an abstract

writing abstract
It’s happened to me more than once. I’ve finished a manuscript to submit for publication and then I realize that I still need to write the abstract before I can submit it.  I hate writing abstracts. They’re famously difficult to write, but they’re required for submitting articles, conference proposals, grant proposals, theses and dissertations, and some professors even ask for them for term papers.

An abstract should be a short, self-contained statement that describes the study or article. It’s not a review of the article or paper, and it is not meant to evaluate or assess the study. Really, it is just suppose to describe the work, including the various components of the study. It is difficult to summarize an entire study or an entire proposal using only the limited number of words permitted for an abstract. What information do you include and what do you leave out? I’ve struggled with this a number of times, but I have now learned a few strategies to make the task of writing an abstract a lot less daunting.

Here are some tips…

Word count

First, it is imperative that you confirm the word count limit for your abstract.  If you are preparing a manuscript for submission to a journal, check the journal’s author guidelines for the specific requirements. Similarly, if it’s for a conference proposal the submission guidelines should include this information. Sometimes the word limit is 75 words, and other times its as much as 500 words.  It just depends on the publication.  If you’re writing an abstract for your thesis or dissertation, you usually have a bit more flexibility and can make it longer than what you are allowed for journal articles. Check with your supervisor or your university’s Thesis Office in the Graduate School for specific requirements.

Create an outline

This may seem backwards compared to creating an outline when you set out to write a paper. When writing an abstract, you already have the paper completed so create an outline by writing down the main idea of each paragraph. Try grouping the main ideas of each section into a single sentence.  For a scientific paper, you may have sections titled Purpose, Methods, Results, and Discussion and each of these sections will have multiple paragraphs.  Use this “reverse outlining” technique to capture the central idea in each section and then distill these ideas into one statement.

Copy and paste

Remember, an abstract should not be an except from the paper itself. Rather, it needs to be an original piece of writing, even though it will contain many of the same phrases and keywords of the larger work. Even so, I recommend using the copy and paste method to create the first draft of your abstract.  Do this by reading through your paper and copying key sentences from each section and pasting them in your abstract, one after the other. Many papers will have thesis sentences and topic sentences, so these are perfect for copying into your abstract. Once you have copy and pasted all the key sentences, you still have a lot finessing to do. You will need to rewrite these sentences by combining them and shortening them to create a neat little paragraph that fits your word limit.

Key terms

If you’re submitting an article for publication, keep in mind that databases often use the abstract for indexing. Be sure to include your article’s keywords and key phrases in the abstract.  Also, the abstract is usually read first by prospective readers to determine if the article is applicable to their needs. By incorporating keywords into the abstract, you are emphasizing the central topics of the work which will give readers the right information to make an informed judgment.

Do nots

Here’s what not to include in an abstract:

  • Do not put citations in the abstract
  • Do not put direct quotes from findings in abstract
  • Do not include abbreviations, footnotes, or incomplete references

Other tips

If your paper is a science or social science study that reports original research, try this formula*:
*Adopted from Colleen A. Capper, Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison

  • First sentence: Statement of the problem or why is this study needed? What problem is it addressing?
  • Second sentence: What does the literature say and what is missing in the literature (this might be combined with sentence one).
  • Third sentence: Given the gap, what are your research question or questions?
  • Fourth sentence: What is the conceptual framework of the study?
  • Fifth sentence: What is the design of the study? (May be combined with sentence #4)
  • Sixth sentence: Specific details on the participants, procedures, analysis (one sentence)
  • Last line: If it is proposal, remind us again why this study is important. Then stop here.
  • Last lines: If it is full study abstract (you have completed the study), then you write the key findings (one sentence or phrase) for each research question you asked.
  • One sentence on implications for theory, practice, and future research

Try this formula for review papers:

  • State the primary objective of the review.
  • Why did you choose the literature that you did?
  • What methods did you use to critically analyze the literature?
  • State the main outcomes and findings of your review.
  • What conclusions did you draw?
  • State any implications for future research or application to practice.

Bottom line: your abstract should tell a reader the key issues addressed in the paper, an idea of the methods used and the conclusions drawn. Essentially an abstract should tell the reader just enough for them to decide whether it’s worth their time to read the paper itself. For this reason your abstract is very important and you should spend time making sure that it is readable and contains an adequate yet brief description of your research. I hope the tips and advice presented above help to give you some direction in crafting the perfect abstract. Use the comment section below to leave me any questions and I will do my best to help you out further if I can.

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Kyle Massey

Kyle is a current PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the College of Education.

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