Writing an Abstract: Purpose and Tips
An abstract is a brief paragraph at the beginning of an academic paper that provides an overview of the article. Abstracts are often also included on posters or submitted to conferences as a way of applying to give a talk. Virtually all articles listed on indexing sites such as PubMed have a freely available abstract.
Purpose of writing an abstract
The purpose of the abstract is to provide an overview of the paper. As such, it acts like a ‘mini’ version of the paper and follows the same structure as the main text.
- It begins with an introduction to the topic and purpose of the study.
- It goes on to briefly describe the methods used in the study.
- It ends with the conclusion(s) drawn from the study and why the findings are important.
While many academic articles continue to be published behind paywalls, abstracts are for the most part freely available for all to read, whether on journal websites or through indexing services. So, another key role of the abstract is to persuade readers to read or access the whole paper. This is true even in cases where a journal subscription is not needed to access the full paper, as most researchers do not have time to read every published article that is relevant to their field of interest. Reading an abstract gives readers the opportunity to decide how interesting, relevant and important your paper is, and whether it is worth investing the time to read the whole article. Therefore, it is crucial that your abstract accurately reflects the content of the paper itself.
Note about writing abstracts
Because abstracts are so short (often only 250–300 words in length), this information needs to be presented very concisely, and there is little room for extraneous information. For this reason, writing an abstract will typically involve highlighting only the most important aspects of each section in the main body of the text:
Tips for writing an abstract
a. Write at the end
While the abstract is one of the first parts of the paper to be read, it is usually a good idea to write it last. Writing the paper first can help you organise your thoughts and develop a clearer understanding of the key elements of your own study.
b. Do not copy from the main text
While the abstract should very closely reflect the content of the paper, do not be tempted to copy and paste sentences from the main text to create the abstract, as this can result in awkward wording and the inclusion of too much detail.
We recommend: If you are struggling to write an abstract ‘de novo’, consider starting with sentences copied from the paper as an outline to help you structure your thoughts. Then, revise and edit that raw material to come up with a cohesive paragraph that flows smoothly.
c. Write according to the journal guidelines
Be sure to check your target journal’s guidelines to see whether there is a word limit for the abstract. It may be simpler to write the abstract first and then edit it down to meet the word limit than to try to write it to a specific target. We also advise checking the author guidelines to see if subheadings need to be inserted to structure the content of the abstract.
d. Review for keywords
Finally, consider reviewing the abstract prior to submission to check whether it contains the keywords that best represent your study. Ideally, the title, abstract and main body text will all naturally contain the same small collection of keywords. So, a quick check for these can help you assess how accurately the content of the abstract matches the content of the main paper.
Read second/final in series: Writing an Abstract: What to Include and Exclude
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