Concrete Tips for Writing Abstracts

As a graduate student, you’ll quickly become familiar with the informative abstract, an integral component of many of the things you’ll write in your academic career—journal articles, research grants, theses and dissertations, or proposals for books and conference papers. An abstract is a self-contained capsule—a short and powerful statement that describes a larger work. It shouldn’t force the reader to flip through the rest of the document seeking an explanation of some vague statement. It must make sense all by itself. In addition, while it may contain key words found in the larger work, the abstract is an original document rather than an excerpted passage.

Abstracts allow readers who may be interested in a longer work to quickly decide whether it is worth their time to read it. Also, many online databases use abstracts to index larger works. Therefore, abstracts should contain keywords and phrases that allow for easy searching.

Components of the abstract vary according to discipline, so it is wise to study abstracts of published works in your particular field.  However, these are the basic components of an abstract in any discipline:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?

Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?

Methodology/approach: How did you go about solving the problem? What variables did you control, measure, or ignore? The abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.

Results: What answers did you find? Again, the abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicate the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.

Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Occasionally, you may be required to provide a short descriptive abstract that simply identifies the type of information found in the work. The descriptive abstract makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. In many ways, the descriptive abstract is like a table of contents in paragraph form. A reader cannot substitute a descriptive abstract for the entire document because it does not capture the content of the piece. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short (100 words or less) and are not generally used in academic and scientific discourse. Check with your instructor or the editor of the journal to which you are submitting a paper for details on the appropriate type of abstract for your audience.

Best Practices for Your Abstract:
  • Avoid use of phrases like “in this paper.” What other paper would you be talking about?
  • Don’t include source references in the abstract.
  • Highlight not only the problem, but also the principal results. Many people read abstracts and then decide whether to read the rest of the paper.
  • Since the abstract will be used by search engines, be sure to include key terms that identify your work.
  • Avoid equations and math in the abstract unless your work relates to a mathematical proposal.
  • The length of an abstract varies according to discipline, and most journals and calls for proposals specify the maximum number of words to include in the abstract.