5 Golden Rules for Writing an AbstractAlyssa Colton, Ph.D. | 2016-12-07
Writing an abstract is one of the most important skills for researchers who are ready to share their work. Whether you are submitting your scholarly article to a journal or preparing your research abstract for consideration at a conference, mastering the following five rules will make your abstract stand out from the crowd.
1. Follow the guidelines.
Abstracts for scholarly articles are somewhat different than abstracts for conferences. Additionally, different journals, associations, and fields adhere to different guidelines.
Thus, make sure that your abstract includes exactly what is asked for, that the content ties in appropriately, and that you’ve followed any formatting rules.
Be sure to check the guidelines to determine if the journal or conference has specific expectations for the abstract, such as whether it should be a structured abstract or just one paragraph.
A structured abstract contains subheads and separate paragraphs for each elements, such as background, method, results, and conclusions.
2. Be sure the abstract has everything you need—no more, no less.
An abstract should be between 200 and 250 words total. Readers should be able to quickly grasp your purpose, methods, thesis, and results within the abstract.
You need to provide all this information in a concise and coherent way. The full-length article or presentation is for providing more details and answering questions.
For a conference presentation, it may also be necessary to narrow in on one particular aspect of your research, as time may prevent you from covering a larger project.
In addition, an abstract usually does not include citations or bibliographic references, descriptions of routine assessments, or information about how statistics were formulated.
Note also that while some comments on the background may be included, readers are going to be most interested in the particulars of your specific project and your particular results.
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3. Use keywords.
In the age of electronic database searches, keywords are vital. Keywords should be added in a separate line after your abstract.
For example, the American Psychological Association recommends using natural language—everyday words you think of in relation to your topic—and picking three to five keywords (McAdoo 2015).
For example, keywords for a study on hawks might include: hawks, prey, territory, or behavior.
For more information on choosing appropriate keywords,
view our recent article:
4. Report your results and conclusions.
An abstract should report what you did, not what you plan to do, so avoid language like hope, plan, try, or attempt. Use the past tense to indicate that the study was already completed. Your results, thesis, and a brief summary of your conclusions should also be included.
Many readers often don’t read past the abstract, so you want to give them a clear snapshot of not only what your research was about but also what you determined. Be sure to also include the “so what”—the conclusions, potential applications, and why they matter.
5. Make your title strong.
Your title is your first impression—it’s your chance to draw in your readers, such as conference reviewers, colleagues, and scientists outside your field. Before your abstract will be read, your title must catch their eye first.
In no more than 12 words, the title should convey something about your subject and the “hook” of your research as concisely and clearly as possible. Focus on what you investigated and how.
Don’t repeat your title in your abstract though; you will need the space for the details of your study in your abstract.
Tip: Using active verbs can strengthen a title. A brief search of scientific articles brought up titles with verbs like “mediate,” “enhance,” and “reveal.” Use a thesaurus or style guide for more ideas for strong verb choices.
Because you have to put so much into a short body of text, writing an abstract can definitely be challenging. As with any writing, it helps to practice as well as to study other examples.
To improve your abstract-writing skills, review abstracts of articles in journals and in conference proceedings to get an idea of how researchers in your field approach specific subjects and research.
As with any work, having someone read your work for feedback is highly desirable before submitting it.
You can also submit your abstract for free editing by a PhD editor at Falcon Scientific Editing.
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Andrade, C. (2011). How to write a good abstract for a scientific paper or conference presentation. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 53(2): 172–175. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.82558
Council of Science Editors. (2014). Scientific style and format: The CSE manual for authors, editors, and publishers, 8th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
McAdoo, T. (2015). Keywords in APA style. APA style. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2015/04/keywords-in-apa-style.html
Shaban, R.,& Macdonald, R. (2007). Preparing a structured abstract for presentation at a scientific conference. Australasian Journal of Paramedicine 5(2). Retrieved from https://afte.org/uploads/documents/meeting-abstract.pdf
Wood, G.J. & Morrison, R.S. (2011). Writing abstracts and developing posters for national meetings. Journal of Palliative Medicine 14 (3): 353-359. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2010.0171
About the Author:
Dr. Alyssa Colton has a Ph.D. in English from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). She has taught and worked with students of all levels and backgrounds on writing skills for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science, health, productivity and career development.
Topics : Abstract Writing