How to Write a Journal Abstract

This article is based on a presentation given at UNL on September 4, 2014, by Professor Denise Cuthbert, Dean of the School of Graduate Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. You may also be interested in two companion articles from the same presentation:

Writing for Publication: Finding the Right Journal
Dealing with Peer Review: Using reviewer's comments to improve your writing.

It’s worth the effort to get your research published as a graduate student. You create a scholarly record before you go on the job market, share your work with a larger audience, and gain satisfaction about your research progress.

A good draft of an abstract guides you through an article’s conception, the writing process, and edits.

If you write the abstract before you start working on the article, you can use it to keep you on course as you write and edit. The first draft of your abstract will help you identify and stay focused on your article’s central argument. As you write, you’ll know if you’re adding information that goes beyond the article’s scope. You won’t fit your whole thesis in one paper.

The abstract streamlines work by reminding you to consider the reader’s needs first.

Purpose of an Abstract

The abstract isn’t a retelling of your paper; rather, it highlights the most important points you address in the paper. Your abstract helps perspective readers decide if they want to spend more time with your article. Your abstract covers four key topics:

  1. What the paper is about
  2. Why your research is important (what’s the gap in the literature that you’re addressing?)
  3. How you conducted the research
  4. Why your paper is worth reading (the "So what?" of your research)

If your paper addresses one small part of your thesis, briefly provide the context of the larger research project. Then focus on the specifics of this particular part.

Include at least one sentence to indicate how your work fits into the scholarly discussion on your topic and the unique contributions you’re making.

When you write the abstract

Keep your abstract focused. The abstract identifies the gap in the literature and where your work fits in, but it doesn’t provide the background for your paper—that information belongs in the Introduction or Literature Review of the paper. To keep your abstract focused on your own work; don’t discuss background or heavily cite others’ work.

Clarify your approach in the abstract.If you’re in the sciences, you’ll include a summary of the methods that you used. In the humanities, focus more on the objectives of your research.

Pick helpful keywords. The words you use to describe your project (the keywords and title) matter. These words position your work in the context of the ongoing scholarly conversation. To get a sense for what words to use, look at the words used in the articles you read. If you’re working with the same ideas, use the same terms. This ensures that your work will come up when readers search for your topic.

Pay attention to word limits. Every journal has specific requirements for the abstract, including word count. If you know where you’re submitting your article, you’ll be able to tailor your abstract and article to the journal, rather than struggling to rewrite your work to fit the journal.

When you’re done writing your article, go back and rework your abstract. You may have modified your topic while you wrote; that’s okay. Keep the four topics an abstract answers about the article in the center of your editing: your paper’s topic, why it’s important in the larger context of scholarly research, how you conducted your research, and the conclusions you reach in your article.

By drafting your abstract before you start the paper, using the abstract to stay on track, and then re-editing the abstract, you’ll simplify your writing process.