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How to write a scholarly abstract that informs and invites readers

In academic writing, abstracts are the most powerful aspect of a manuscript, says Erin McTigue, a writing coach with The Positive Academic. “Realistically, to extract key findings, busy researchers may read only the abstract, and for those who proceed onward, the abstract provides an advance organizer framing their comprehension,” she says.

Abstracts need to be clear, and they need to have well-structured sentences, says Wendi Kamman Zimmer, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University. They should include concrete examples, words, and ideas, active voice, and human elements, she says: “Arguably, abstracts that are stronger have a contestable thesis or a very strong argument, something that you can touch; something that’s tangible.”

McTigue outlines two approaches to writing a strong scholarly abstract that both informs and invites readers:

1) Construct a reverse outline. In this top-down approach, go through your paper and highlight key sentences in your introduction, purpose, and methods. Don’t worry about highlighting too many. This simply serves to narrow it down. Next, select several key sentences from each section and start to paste them together. You’ll now have an abstract that is too long, but shorter than the full paper. Lastly, review and revise for flow. Look for connections, remove any redundancies, and then start editing for word count and other restrictions.

2) Conduct five rhetorical moves. In this bottom-up approach, you’ll use five moves to write your abstract. They are:

  • Move one: Introduce the argument that is central to your topic, e.g. “Why have we not yet solved the problem of vocabulary disparity among different children in America?”
  • Move two: Explain the purpose of your research, e.g. “This research investigates…” or “We analyzed…” or “This paper assesses the significance of…”.
  • Move three: Describe what you did, e.g., “We used a mixed methodological approach…” or “This study used a qualitative case study approach to investigate…”.
  • Move four: Present the findings and one or two key takeaways, e.g., “We found…” or “The results suggest…” or “Overall these results show…”.
  • Move five: Present the implications of your research, e.g., “These results suggest that…”

You can learn more about the rhetorical moves method in Mark Pedretti’s TAA Blog article, “5 Rhetorical Moves for Writing Abstracts”.

This article was adapted from Erin McTigue and Wendi Zimmer’s 2021 TAA Virtual Conference presentation, “Concretizing Abstracts”.

Kim PawlakKim Pawlak is TAA’s Director of Publishing & Operations. She has been writing about textbook and academic writing and publishing for more than 25 years.