Writing an effective abstract

Summary

  • The abstract is one of the most-read sections, so make sure it’s a good one.
  • Find out the requirements for your abstract from your institution or target journal.
  • Know who your audience will be as this will help you to write a suitable and more compelling abstract.
  • Will you be writing a descriptive or informative abstract? It all depends on the type of document you are producing.
  • Aim to answer four points when writing your abstract.
Abstract written on paper on a desk with books
Your abstract is like a pitch. It’s there to draw in readers but also allows them to decide whether your work is relevant to them in as little time as possible.

What does a dissertation, thesis, research article, review and conference proceeding have in common? The abstract. This part is written last and at this point, you’re probably tired of writing and just want to wrap things up. But, never neglect the abstract as this is one of the most-read parts of your work. Not writing an effective abstract won’t do your work any justice. In the case of academic publications, the abstract has to capture and inform readers as succinctly as possible. It enables readers to decide quickly whether your article is relevant to their area of interest or not. If you can convince the reader to read on then there’s a greater chance that they will cite your work and consequently boost its visibility in your field.

Before you begin writing your abstract

Before you start writing anything, I strongly recommend that you consult the rubric for clear guidance on what to include in your abstract. If you’re embarking on writing a dissertation or thesis then I highly recommend checking out my previous blog ‘Writing a quality dissertation’. In this blog, I recommend that you refer to the guidelines published by your institution to find out how to present a dissertation/thesis.

Another good read is my other blog ‘Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide’ where I explain that an author has to consult the Guide for Authors before writing their manuscript. For example, the Guide for Authors for the Journal of Membrane Science asks authors to keep the abstract between 100 and 200 words long. It goes on to say that the abstract should stand alone and so authors should avoid using references as that would mean readers would have to refer to a separate References section.

The journal also prefers the authors don’t use uncommon abbreviations and acronyms without defining them in their first instance. This still goes on and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen an acronym and had no clue as to what it meant. It’s obvious to the writer, but try to imagine it from the perspective of a reader who is a layperson reading your work for the first time.

Who are your readers?

Something to consider from the outset is who your audience is likely to be. If you’re expecting lay readers to be your main audience then it is best to use as little technical jargon and terminology as possible. Picture what it’s like to not be an expert in a particular field and then stumbling across an article that is riddled with uncommon acronyms, formulae and terminology. It can be awfully off-putting to read. So, make the abstract friendly and take the reader by the hand and guide them through all the wonders of your work. Perhaps other academics in your area will be the main readers in which case you won’t have to worry too much about this. Nonetheless, academics want to get to know your work as quickly as possible as they may be sifting through countless articles as part of a literature survey.

Abstract type

There are two main types of abstracts: descriptive and informative. A descriptive abstract is between 100 and 200 words long and will cover the purpose, aims and research methods but will not include any results. An informative abstract is quite similar and gives a general overview of the research and will include key results. This kind of abstract can also be 100 to 200 words long and is commonly used for research articles.

Structuring your abstract

An abstract should aim to address four points:

  • What is the societal problem or research question that you aim to tackle?
  • What are your research methods (e.g. experimental approach, case studies, surveys, etc.)?
  • What are your main results?
  • What are your main conclusions and recommendations?

This goes back to my previous blog ‘Manuscript publishing: a beginner’s guide’ where I mention the importance of telling a story. Using the four points above will be a template to help you do this. After all, you need the reader to understand very soon why they should care about your work and why it’s so important.

Final tips on writing an abstract

  • It may go without saying but do not include tables and figures in your abstract.
  • Consider writing the abstract from scratch and avoid copy and pasting sentences from the rest of the document.
  • Think of keywords and phrases that readers will use as search terms. Come up with a list of 5 to 10 keywords and use them in your abstract as this will help immensely with your article’s visibility.
  • Provide a hook in your abstract to attract readers. You could use an interesting fact or compelling finding that you discuss later on. The more readers you get, the more chance your article is cited.
  • Proofread and edit your abstract. This is highly important as this is one of the first things readers see and will determine whether they continue to read on and even cite. A poorly written abstract containing spelling and grammar errors are just doing your work a disservice.
  • Have an expert and layperson read over your abstract for constructive feedback.
  • Check out abstracts from highly-cited articles to see how it’s done right.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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