‘What tense should I write a scholarly abstract in?’ and other frequently asked questions about writing abstracts
Erin McTigue, a writing coach with The Positive Academic, and Wendi Kamman Zimmer, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, answer four frequently asked questions about writing scholarly abstracts.
Q: How long is an abstract?
Zimmer: “While this depends on the journal you’re publishing in and the requirements of your field, it is generally 150-300 words.”
Q: What tense should I write an abstract in?
McTigue: “Usually the present tense is used for the opening statement, the past tense is used for the methods and results, and the present tense again for the conclusion. It is definitely okay to switch the tenses.”
Q: Can you use first person in an abstract?
Zimmer: “Although this is determined by your field and the journal’s requirements, overall, yes, it is okay to use first person. If it is allowed, we highly recommend it. It helps with pace, and can also help with word count, because you can then use ‘we’ or ‘my researchers’ or ‘our research team’.”
Q: How do I seek useful feedback on my abstract?
McTigue: “Ask ‘do you understand what my research is about?’ or ‘do you understand why my research is important?’. See if they can pull that very important information out of the abstract. You are also more likely to find someone willing to give you feedback if you approach them with a 150-word abstract rather than a 55-page paper.”
This article was adapted from Erin McTigue and Wendi Zimmer’s 2021 TAA Virtual Conference presentation, “Concretizing Abstracts”.
Kim Pawlak is TAA’s Director of Publishing & Operations. She has been writing about textbook and academic writing and publishing for more than 25 years.