How to Write an Abstract
Four Parts:Getting Your Abstract StartedWriting Your AbstractFormatting Your AbstractSample AbstractsCommunity Q&A
If you need to write an abstract for an academic or scientific paper, don't panic! Your abstract is simply a short, stand-alone summary of the work or paper that others can use as an overview. An abstract describes what you do in your essay, whether it’s a scientific experiment or a literary analysis paper. It should help your reader understand the paper and help people searching for this paper decide whether it suits their purposes prior to reading. To write an abstract, finish your paper first, then type a summary that identifies the purpose, problem, methods, results, and conclusion of your work. After you get the details down, all that's left is to format it correctly. Since an abstract is only a summary of the work you've already done, it's easy to accomplish!
Part 1Getting Your Abstract Started
1Write your paper first. Even though an abstract goes at the beginning of the work, it acts as a summary of your entire paper. Rather than introducing your topic, it will be an overview of everything you write about in your paper. Save writing your abstract for last, after you have already finished your paper.
- A thesis and an abstract are entirely different things. The thesis of a paper introduces the main idea or question, while the abstract works to review the entirety of the paper, including the methods and results.
- Even if you think that you know what your paper is going to be about, always save the abstract for last. You will be able to give a much more accurate summary if you do just that - summarize what you've already written.
2Review and understand any requirements for writing your abstract. The paper you’re writing probably has specific guidelines and requirements, whether it’s for publication in a journal, submission in a class, or part of a work project. Before you start writing, refer to the rubric or guidelines you were presented with to identify important issues to keep in mind.
- Is there a maximum or minimum length?
- Are there style requirements?
- Are you writing for an instructor or a publication?
3Consider your audience. Abstracts are written to help readers find your work. For example, in scientific journals, abstracts allow readers to quickly decide whether the research discussed is relevant to their own interests. Abstracts also help your readers get at your main argument quickly. Keep the needs of your readers in mind as you write the abstract.
- Will other academics in your field read this abstract?
- Should it be accessible to a lay reader or somebody from another field?
4Determine the type of abstract you must write. Although all abstracts accomplish essentially the same goal, there are two primary styles of abstract: descriptive and informative. You may have been assigned a specific style, but if you weren’t, you will have to determine which is right for you. Typically, informative abstracts are used for much longer and technical research while descriptive abstracts are best for shorter papers.
- Descriptive abstracts explain the purpose, goal, and methods of your research but leave out the results section. These are typically only 100-200 words.
- Informative abstracts are like a condensed version of your paper, giving an overview of everything in your research including the results. These are much longer than descriptive abstracts, and can be anywhere from a single paragraph to a whole page long.
- The basic information included in both styles of abstract is the same, with the main difference being that the results are only included in an informative abstract, and an informative abstract is much longer than a descriptive one.
- A critical abstract is not often used, but it may be required in some courses. A critical abstract accomplishes the same goals as the other types of abstract, but will also relate the study or work being discussed to the writer’s own research. It may critique the research design or methods.
Part 2Writing Your Abstract
1Identify your purpose. You're writing about a correlation between lack of lunches in schools and poor grades. So what? Why does this matter? The reader wants to know why your research is important, and what the purpose of it is. Start off your descriptive abstract by considering the following questions:
- Why did you decide to do this study or project?
- How did you conduct your research?
- What did you find?
- Why is this research and your findings important?
- Why should someone read your entire essay?
2Explain the problem at hand. Abstracts state the “problem” behind your work. Think of this as the specific issue that your research or project addresses. You can sometimes combine the problem with your motivation, but it is best to be clear and separate the two.
- What problem is your research trying to better understand or solve?
- What is the scope of your study - a general problem, or something specific?
- What is your main claim or argument?
3Explain your methods. Motivation - check. Problem - check. Methods? Now is the part where you give an overview of how you accomplished your study. If you did your own work, include a description of it here. If you reviewed the work of others, it can be briefly explained.
- Discuss your own research including the variables and your approach.
- Describe the evidence you have to support your claim
- Give an overview of your most important sources.
4Describe your results (informative abstract only). This is where you begin to differentiate your abstract between a descriptive and an informative abstract. In an informative abstract, you will be asked to provide the results of your study. What is it that you found?
- What answer did you reach from your research or study?
- Was your hypothesis or argument supported?
- What are the general findings?
5Give your conclusion. This should finish up your summary and give closure to your abstract. In it, address the meaning of your findings as well as the importance of your overall paper. This format of having a conclusion can be used in both descriptive and informative abstracts, but you will only address the following questions in an informative abstract.
- What are the implications of your work?
- Are your results general or very specific?
Part 3Formatting Your Abstract
1Keep it in order. There are specific questions your abstract must provide answers for, but the answers must be kept in order as well. Ideally, it should mimic the overall format of your essay, with a general ‘introduction, ‘body,’ and ‘conclusion.’
- Many journals have specific style guides for abstracts. If you’ve been given a set of rules or guidelines, follow them to the letter.
2Provide helpful information. Unlike a topic paragraph, which may be intentionally vague, an abstract should provide a helpful explanation of your paper and your research. Word your abstract so that the reader knows exactly what you’re talking about, and isn’t left hanging with ambiguous references or phrases.
- Avoid using direct acronyms or abbreviations in the abstract, as these will need to be explained in order to make sense to the reader. That uses up precious writing room, and should generally be avoided.
- If your topic is about something well-known enough, you can reference the names of people or places that your paper focuses on.
- Don’t include tables, figures, sources, or long quotations in your abstract. These take up too much room and usually aren’t what your readers want from an abstract anyway.
Write it from scratch. Your abstract is a summary, yes, but it should be written completely separate from your paper. Don't copy and paste direct quotes from yourself, and avoid simply paraphrasing your own sentences from elsewhere in your writing. Write your abstract using completely new vocabulary and phrases to keep it interesting and redundancy-free.
4Use key phrases and words. If your abstract is to be published in a journal, you want people to be able to find it easily. In order to do so, readers will search for certain queries on online databases in hopes that papers, like yours, will show up. Try to use 5-10 important words or phrases key to your research in your abstract.
- For example, if you’re writing a paper on the cultural differences in perceptions of schizophrenia, be sure to use words like “schizophrenia,” “cross-cultural,” “culture-bound,” “mental illness,” and “societal acceptance.” These might be search terms people use when looking for a paper on your subject.
Use real information. You want to draw people in with your abstract; it is the hook that will encourage them to continue reading your paper. However, do not reference ideas or studies that you don’t include in your paper in order to do this. Citing material that you don’t use in your work will mislead readers and ultimately lower your viewership.
6Avoid being too specific. An abstract is a summary, and as such should not refer to specific points of your research other than possibly names or locations. You should not need to explain or define any terms in your abstract, a reference is all that is needed. Avoid being too explicit in your summary and stick to a very broad overview of your work.
- Make sure to avoid jargon. This specialized vocabulary may not be understood by general readers in your area and can cause confusion.
Be sure to do basic revisions. The abstract is a piece of writing that, like any other, should be revised before being completed. Check it over for grammatical and spelling errors and make sure it is formatted properly.
8Get feedback from someone. Having someone else read your abstract is a great way for you to know whether you’ve summarized your research well. Try to find someone who doesn’t know everything about your project. Ask him or her to read your abstract and then tell you what s/he understood from it. This will let you know whether you’ve adequately communicated your key points in a clear manner.
- Consulting with your professor, a colleague in your field, or a tutor or writing center consultant can be very helpful. If you have these resources available to you, use them!
- Asking for assistance can also let you know about any conventions in your field. For example, it is very common to use the passive voice (“experiments were performed”) in the sciences. However, in the humanities active voice is usually preferred.
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What is the difference between an abstract and an introduction?
An abstract explains the aim of the paper in very brief, (the methods, results, etc.). In the introduction, you write the background of your topic, explain the purpose of the paper more broadly, and explain the hypothesis, and the research question(s).
Can an abstract be a paper written or a soft copy?
An abstract can either be written, soft copy or any other form with words, it's the content that matters.
Which tense should be used to write an abstract?
In all the description of what you did, a simple past tense is best; since you're describing what you did, neither present nor future would be appropriate.
Should I cite references in my abstract?
How do I calculate the number of words in my abstract?
Your word processing software probably includes a word count feature, consult the documentation. If you're doing it by hand, approximate the number of words per line (very roughly). Then count the number of lines, and multiply it by the number of words per line. It gives a fairly accurate estimate.
Should an abstract be put in the beginning or at the end?
Usually, abstracts are provided at the beginning of the thesis or article. This will help readers to understand the work, and will attract interested readers.
Am I supposed to add the author's name on the informative abstract?
First write down the important points about the author, such as name, date of birth, in which field he/she is involved - then add extra points.
What is the importance of an abstract?
Why must one create an abstract?
An abstract is one of the best tools to help researchers determine if a paper would be useful for them to read or not.
Ask a Question
- Abstracts are typically a paragraph or two and should be no more than 10% of the length of the full essay. Look at other abstracts in similar publications for an idea of how yours should go.
- Consider carefully how technical the paper or the abstract should be. It is often reasonable to assume that your readers have some understanding of your field and the specific language it entails, but anything you can do to make the abstract more easily readable is a good thing.
These pages show two examples of typical abstracts from honours theses. Notice that the stages of the abstracts have been labelled, so that you can see the function of each sentence or part-sentence. You can also see that there are differences in the type of information that is included in each abstract, as well as differences in level of detail.
Sample 1: Genetic Mechanisms and Dissemination of Antibiotic Resistance
(Background statement) The spread of antibiotic resistance is aided by mobile elements such as transposons and conjugative plasmids. (Narrowing statement) Recently, integrons have been recognised as genetic elements that have the capacity to contribute to the spread of resistance. (Elaboration of narrowing) (statement) Integrons constitute an efficient means of capturing gene cassettes and allow expression of encoded resistance. (Aims) The aims of this study were to screen clinical isolates for integrons, characterise gene cassettes and extended spectrum b-lactamase (ESBL) genes. (Extended aim) Subsequent to this, genetic linkage between ESBL genes and gentamicin resistance was investigated. (Results) In this study, 41 % of multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria and 79 % of extended-spectrum b-lactamase producing organisms were found to carry either one or two integrons, as detected by PCR. (Results) A novel gene cassette contained within an integron was identified from Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, encoding a protein that belongs to the small multidrug resistance (SMR) family of transporters. (Results) pLJ1, a transferable plasmid that was present in 86 % of the extended-spectrum b-lactamase producing collection, was found to harbour an integron carrying aadB, a gene cassette for gentamicin, kanamycin and tobramycin resistance and a blaSHV-12 gene for third generation cephalosporin resistance. (Justification of results) The presence of this plasmid accounts for the gentamicin resistance phenotype that is often associated with organisms displaying an extended-spectrum b-lactamase phenotype.
(Jones 2004, p.9)
Sample 2: Permeable Treatment Walls
(Background statement) A review of groundwater remediation in use today shows that new techniques are required that solve the problems of pump and treat, containment and in-situ treatment. (Narrowing statement) One such technique is the method that involves the use of permeable treatment walls. (Elaboration) These methods use a reactive medium such as iron to remediate contaminated groundwater. (Aim*) Several methods of implementing this remediation strategy have been described. (Elaboration of aim) These methods include injection and trenching. (Specific focus of aim) The use of a funnel and gate system via a trench has been examined in detail (Methods) using a groundwater modelling option of the FLAC program. (Methods) The modelling involved an analysis of the effect of changing the lengths of the walls and gate, varying the permeability, and varying the number of gates. (Results) The results showed that increasing the wall length, gate length and permeability increases the size of the plume captured. (Key result) An important factor in designing the walls is the residence time of the water in the gate or the contact time of the contaminant with the reactive media. (Evaluation of results) A sensitivity analysis has been conducted that shows that increasing the size of the capture zone decreases the residence time (Limitations) which will limit the design. (Future applications and research) The results of the modelling and sensitivity analysis are presented such that they can be used as an aid to the design of permeable treatment walls.
(Dasey G. 1996 p.i)
* This is the aim of the research, but it is not very clearly stated. It might be better if the aim was made more explicit.
Sample 3: The Effects of Flouride on the Reproduction of Three Native Australian Plant Species
Note: This abstract is referred to as an Executive Summary (original 2 pages)
(Background statement) No other form of environmental pollution has had as widespread detrimental effect on the growth and reproductive capacity of plants as air pollution. (Narrowing statement) Fluorides have long been recognized as highly toxic and research has shown that they are the most phytotoxic of all air pollutants. (Elaboration of narrowing statement) One of the most subtle impacts of fluoride on plant development is on their reproductive processes… There has been very little work directed towards forest trees, and especially native Australian species. (Broad purpose of study) An understanding of the effects of fluoride on the reproductive processes of plant species within a forest community may help predict changes within the community following an increase in atmospheric fluoride arising from industrial sources.
(Narrowing of purpose of study) This study investigates the effects of increased atmospheric fluoride emissions from an aluminium smelter, on the reproductive processes of three native species, Banksia aemula, Bossiaea heterophylla and Actinotus helianthi. Elaboration of purpose Attention has also been paid to the soil seed reserve as an important resource for the replacement of adult plants within the community.
(Results) For Banksia aemula the study found that the reproduction of this fluoride-sensitive species may be affected in the close vicinity of the smelter… For the two ground layer species the study found that the fluoride may be affecting the Bossiaea heterophylla but having no discernible or very little effect on the Actinotus helianthi.**
(Significance of results 1) The implications of these results for the forest community are that sensitive native species such as the long-lived Banksia aemula and Bossiaea heterophylla will be removed from the plant community close to the smelter. This will reduce the resources they provide to the existing ecosystem but will, however, free more resources for the more resistant opportunist species such as Actinotus helianthi as well as the many introduced species. (Significance of results 2) The soil seed reserve study indicated that the seed reserve was very small in all areas. This would have several negative impacts on the natural regeneration of the area in the event of the closure of the smelter…
(Future research) Further research is recommended to assess the biochemical pathways for both the vegetative and reproductive processes and the mechanisms of the pollination of this important species… This may need to be repeated at certain intervals to monitor any further changes that may result from the higher fluoride emissions of the new expansion.
Exercise for sample 3
The abstract (executive summary) above has been summarised to focus on key stages. Some of the omitted text is reproduced below. Can you identify the stages?
- The effects of the fluoride for the forest species were assessed by measuring several reproductive and associated characteristics of the plants found within forest areas along a fluoride gradient.
- Bossiaea heterophylla shows more visible signs of fluoride stress close to the smelter. Insect damage to the Bossiaea heterophylla seed pods were observed in the background sites but not in the high fluoride sites indicating that the fluoride may be having an effect on the seed predators close to the smelter.
- This study looked at the difference in visible structures associated with reproduction. Leaves of the Banksia aemula trees growing close to the smelter have accumulated large concentrations of foliar fluoride. Whether this is affecting the physiology and biochemical processes of the plan(which in turn may indirectly affect the reproduction potential of the plants) or the increased fluoride in the atmosphere is directly affecting the reproduction mechanisms is difficult to ascertain from this study.