5 Tips for writing an abstract

When writing an abstract, consider its aim. An abstract is Writing Anxietyintended to tell the reader the basic, most important aspects of your work so that he or she can decide whether or not to read the rest of the paper.

Those five basic aspects are:

  • What it is that you’re talking about (the subject matter)
  • Why he/she should care (why the subject matter is important)
  • What you found (or hope to find out) about the subject matter (what your research question or intention is)
  • How you learned (or intend to learn) about the subject matter (the research methodology)
  • What your conclusions were (when appropriate–conclusions don’t belong in the abstract of a dissertation or thesis proposal)
  • If you think there’s anything else the reader really needs to know about your study, you can try to fit it in. But keep it short. The accepted length for dissertation abstracts filed with UMI is 350 words, and it wouldn’t hurt if you can keep it shorter. The point of the abstract is not to convey the full details and richness of your study–the point of the abstract is to convince a reader that the study is worth reading. And, to that end, the points mentioned earlier are crucial, and all need to be addressed without getting bogged down into details or the complexity of the subject.

    Certainly you, the author, might believe those complexities are crucial to the understanding of the subject matter–and you might be right–but you’re not trying to teach the reader all about the subject matter–you’re trying to show the reader what it is he or she would get from reading the paper.

    Many people suggest waiting until you’ve written the whole paper before writing the abstract, and obviously it makes sense to finalize your abstract after completing the paper. But writing the abstract can also be a great exercise to help a writer struggling with the myriad aspects of a large work. Working on the abstract helps one create a focus on the project as a whole–it forces one to think about the whole project and how it fits together–and how that project is relevant to the larger world around. It leads the author to step back from the details and to look at the larger strokes of the picture being painted. It helps one see the forest instead of the trees.

    It’s also a good exercise because you can do it in a short time. If you set yourself to work on the abstract for half an hour, and you commit to writing a whole 350-word abstract in that time, it can be done. Sure, it may not be perfect, but it’s something–something that you can look at and revise, something that you can show to someone else and get feedback, and something that you finished–and it’s good to get into the habit of finishing the different parts of the dissertation because that’s the path to finishing the entire dissertation.

    You should not try to write a perfect abstract unless you have time after everything else is finished. As an exercise, or if pressed for time, try to write an abstract that touches on all the major points. Indeed, as a general rule, with written projects, you should try to finish them before trying to make them perfect. If you have no trouble finishing your projects, then you can strive for perfection, but otherwise, finishing is usually far more satisfying, practical, and productive than ceaselessly striving for perfection.


    Dave Harris, Ph.D., academic writing coach and editor, helps writers rework their writing process, fine-tune their final drafts, and everything in between (www.thoughtclearing.com; dave@thoughtclearing.com).
    Copyright © 2007, Dave Harris. All rights reserved