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5 Rhetorical moves for writing abstracts

An article abstract is often the first thing that readers and reviewers see. Setting the right tone up front can impact whether your readers continue reading, influence the way the rest of your text is received, and, in terms of reviewers, it may determine whether your article is accepted to be published. What makes for a strong article abstract? What goes in and what stays out?

According to Mark Pedretti, Director of the Center for Writing and Rhetoric at Claremont Graduate University, there is something very commonsensical about writing an abstract. In his webinar titled “How to Structure & Write an Article Abstract,” Pedretti recommends thinking of an abstract as a cognitive roadmap for your readers; it generates the expectations that are going to inform how the reader approaches the text. The abstract signals to the reader what to pay attention to and where to expect transition, organizing the reading experience before it ever takes place.

A closely constrained genre, abstract writing is governed by a number of fairly predictable conventions. As Pedretti explained, “A good abstract is like writing a haiku. It is very tightly constrained and you have to accomplish a lot in a very small amount a space. Simplicity is a key watchword.”

A good abstract should serve to summarize the text, preview the text to give cues to readers, advertise the text, and assist in classifying the text for professional indexers and database abstract writers. To that end, rather than using a strict structure format as your writing model, Pedretti suggests using the following five key rhetorical moves.

1) Introduce the situation or problem: This is the argument for the centrality, importance, or other relevance of your topic. For theoretical articles this often starts with a question.

2) Explain the purpose of the research: This move is usually demarcated by signaling words. There are very predicable lead-ins that should be used to signal this move to your readers, such as: “This research investigates…” or “We analyze…”

3) Describe the methods, materials, and/or procedures: This is the most flexible of the moves. It can be compressed or even omitted if you need to cut length.

4) Present the findings: Due to the length restrictions of abstracts, you can only include your major finding(s) or the key takeaway(s). These are signaled by statements such as: “The data indicates…” or “We found…”

5) Discuss implications or recommendations: Gesturing toward the broader horizon of your research, this is your “so what” question—why your research matters. Examples of common phrases include: for additional applications, use “…can be applied…”; for policy recommendations, use “… need to do…”; for further research, use “Additional studies are needed.”

Thinking of your abstract in terms of these rhetorical moves can provide more flexibility and ease in the writing process. “I like this option much more than thinking of an abstract as a structure, which is more of a static entity,” said Pedretti. “You have a number of objectives you are trying to accomplish, most likely in a relatively predictable order, but there are many different strategies that you can use to meet those goals. Your tasks are the same, but the rhetorical moves provide leeway to accomplish your goals.”

There are other variations to consider when writing an abstract, the most important being word count. A short abstract can be limited to just 50 words, which provides enough room to cover purpose of research, your key finding(s), and why it matters. The typical length of an abstract ranges from 100 to 250 words.

Before writing an abstract, read the submission guidelines closely. The guidelines will provide your word count as well as very specific detail regarding use of the rhetorical moves.