While writing a report or article, you will be required to include an abstract. This is usually a very concise summary of what the report or article is about and is usually placed before the body of your writing. The abstract can be read to get a quick overview. It tells the reader what to expect in your work and it should be based on all you have written.

The word abstract comes from the Latin ‘abstractum’, which means a condensed form of a longer piece of writing. An abstract is a short summary of your completed research. It presents all the major elements of your work in a highly condensed form. An abstract may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work.  An abstract is not a review, nor does it evaluate the work being abstracted. While it contains keywords found in the larger work, the abstract is an original document rather than an excerpted passage.

Size and Structure
Sizes of an abstract may vary depending on submission in different universities/institutes/organizations. The structure of the abstract should mirror the structure of the whole thesis and should represent all its major elements.

Why do we write abstracts?
Abstracts are important parts of reports and research papers and sometimes academic assignments. You may write an abstract for various reasons. The two most important are selection and indexing. Abstracts allow readers who may be interested in a longer work to quickly decide whether it is worth their time to read it. Also, many online databases use abstracts to index larger works. Therefore, abstracts should contain keywords and phrases that allow for easy searching.

When do people write abstracts?

  • when submitting articles to journals, especially online journals
  • when applying for research grants
  • when writing a book proposal
  • when completing the Ph.D. dissertation or M.A. thesis
  • when writing a proposal for a conference paper
  • when writing a proposal for a book chapter

What makes a good abstract?
A good abstract:

  • Uses one well-developed paragraph that is coherent and concise, and is able to stand alone as a unit of information
  • Covers all the essential academic elements of the full-length paper, namely the background, purpose, focus, methods, results, and conclusions
  • Follows strictly the chronology of the report
  • Contains no information not included in the paper
  • Is written in plain English and is understandable to a wider audience, as well as to your discipline-specific audience
  • Often uses passive structures in order to report on findings, focusing on the issues rather than people
  • Uses the language of the original paper, often in a more simplified form for the more general reader
  • Usually does not include any referencing
  • In publications such as journals, it is found at the beginning of the text, while in academic assignments, it is placed on a separate preliminary page.
  • Is intelligible to a wide audience
  • Provides logical connections between material included

Types of abstracts
There are two types of abstracts: informational and descriptive.
Descriptive abstracts
Descriptive abstracts are generally used for humanities and social science papers or psychology essays. This type of abstract is usually very short. Most descriptive abstracts have certain key parts in common. They are background, purpose, particular interest/focus of the paper, an overview of contents (not always included), but NOT results.

Informative abstracts
Informative abstracts are generally used for science, engineering, or psychology reports. Most informative abstracts also have key parts in common. Each of these parts might consist of 1-2 sentences. The parts include background, aim or purpose of research, the method used, findings/results, conclusions, and recommendations. It introduces the subject to readers, who must then read the report to learn the study results. It also highlights essential points and communicates the contents of reports.

Parts of an abstract
An abstract is a short summary of your completed research. If done well, it makes the reader want to learn more about your research.
These are the basic components of an abstract in any discipline:

  • Motivation/problem statement: Why do we care about the problem? What practical, scientific, theoretical or artistic gap is your research filling?
  • Methods/procedure/approach: What did you actually do to get your results? (e.g. analyzed 3 novels, completed a series of 5 oil paintings, interviewed 17 students)
  • Results/findings/product: As a result of completing the above procedure, what did you learn/invent/create?
  • Conclusion/implications: What are the larger implications of your findings, especially for the problem/gap identified in step 1? However, it’s important to note that the weight accorded to the different components can vary by discipline. For models, try to find abstracts of research that are similar to your research.

How not to write an abstract:

  • Do not refer extensively to other works.
  • Do not add information not contained in the original work.
  • Do not define terms.

Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.

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