How to Write an Abstract

Definition and Tips

Manuela Schewe-Behnisch/EyeEm/Getty Images

An abstract is a brief overview of the key points of an article, report, thesis, or proposal. Positioned at the head of a paper, the abstract is usually "the first thing that individuals read and, as such, decide whether to continue reading" the article or report, wrote Dan W. Butin in his book "The Education Dissertation." "It is also what is most accessed by search engines and researchers conducting their own literature reviews" (2010). The abstract is also called a synopsis or an executive summary (especially in business writing).

What a Good Abstract Contains

An abstract serves the purpose of summarizing your research or making your case for a project (or grant funding) to be awarded to you. It should encapsulate the most important information that the paper or proposal will present. In the case of obtaining grants or bids, that could include why your firm or organization is the best for the job or award. Present your company as the solution to the problem.

If you're summarizing research, you'll want to mention your methodology behind how you tackled the question or problem and your basic conclusion. It's not like writing a news lead—you don't want to tease your readers with unanswered questions to get them to read the article. You want to hit the high points so that readers will know that your in-depth research is just what they are seeking out, without reading the whole piece at that moment.

Tips on Writing an Abstract

The abstract may not be what you write first, as it might be easiest to summarize your whole paper after it's been completed. You could draft it from your outline, but you'll want to double-check later that you have included the most important points from your article and that there's nothing in the abstract that you decided not to include in your report.

The abstract is a summary and shouldn't have anything in it that's not in the paper itself. Neither is it the same as the introduction to your report, which sets out your thesis and your aims. The abstract also contains information about your conclusion.

There are two types of abstracts, descriptive or informative. "The Handbook of Technical Writing" explains it this way:

"A descriptive abstract summarizes the purpose, scope, and methods used to arrive at the reported findings. It is a slightly expanded table of contents in sentence and paragraph form. A descriptive abstract need not be longer than several sentences. An informative abstract is an expanded version of the descriptive abstract. In addition to information about the purpose, scope, and research methods used, the informative abstract summarizes the results, conclusions, and any recommendations. The informative abstract retains the tone and essential scope of the report, omitting its details." (Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006.)

Abstract Length

An abstract is not overly long. Mikael Berndtsson and colleagues advise, "A typical [informative] abstract is about 250-500 words. This is not more than 10-20 sentences, so you will obviously have to choose your words very carefully to cover so much information in such a condensed format." (Mikael Berndtsson, et al., "Thesis Projects: A Guide for Students in Computer Science and Information Systems," 2nd ed. Springer-Verlag, 2008.)

If you can hit all the high points in fewer words—if you're just writing a descriptive abstract—don't add extra just to reach 250 words, of course. Unnecessary detail doesn't do you or your reviewers any favors. Also, the proposal requirements or the journal that you wish to be published in may have length requirements. Always follow guidelines you've received, as even minor errors can cause your paper or grant request to be rejected.

Sources

  • Jennifer Evans, "Your Psychology Project: The Essential Guide." Sage, 2007.
  • David Gilborn, quoted by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler in "Writing for Peer-Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published." Routledge, 2013.
  • Sharon J. Gerson and Steven M. Gerson, "Technical Writing: Process and Product." Pearson, 2003
  • Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, "Handbook of Technical Writing." Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006
  • Robert Day and Barbara Gastel, "How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper," 7th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2012.