• 3-minute read
  • 9th September 2016

Abstract Thinking (4 Tips for Writing an Abstract)

An abstract is a short summary of a larger work, providing a convenient way for readers to quickly comprehend its contents. This makes abstracts an essential part of academic writing.

In fact, students and academics have to write abstracts for everything from funding applications and conference papers to PhD dissertations and textbooks. Learning how to write a good abstract is, thus, highly advised.

1. Descriptive or Informative?

There are two main kinds of abstract: descriptive and informative.

A descriptive abstract briefly describes the subject area and issue addressed by a paper. This may include the aims of the research and methods used, but not the results or conclusions.

An informative abstract  should do everything that a descriptive abstract does plus outline any results, conclusions and recommendations. This makes it like a shortened version of the paper, rather than simply a description.

Make sure you know what kind you’ve been asked to write. As a general rule, descriptive abstracts are shorter (often no more than 100 words), while informative abstracts can be longer. However, make sure to check your style guide or ask your supervisor if you’re unsure what type to write!

2. Keywords

You may be asked to provide a list of keywords as well. These are used for indexing and searching articles, making them vital to your work being found.

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Even if you’re not required to provide a list of keywords, including important terminology in your abstract is a good way of making it easier to access via databases and search engines.

3. Keeping It Self-Contained

An abstract should tell readers everything they need to know before deciding whether to read a work in full. As such, avoid vague statements that require further explanation or confusing terminology that needs defining.

One tip is to have it checked by someone who hasn’t read your work. If they can understand what your research is about from the abstract, you’re on the right track. If not, you may need to make some revisions.

4. The Anatomy of an Abstract

The exact content of your abstract will vary. Nevertheless, we can set out a few questions that most abstracts should answer:

  • Motivations – Why is the research important? Why should the reader care?
  • Problem – What problem do you address? What is the scope of your argument?
  • Methodology – How do you attempt to solve the problem? Which variables did you test? What kind of data did you gather?
  • Results – What were your results? Is there data that you can include here?
  • Conclusion – What conclusions did you draw on the basis of the findings? Did you make any recommendations as a result?

If you touch upon all these factors, while being careful to stick to the word limit, you should end up with a high quality abstract suitable for publication.

For more guidance on writing a dissertation or thesis, check out our full dissertation writing guide.

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