How to write: Abstracts

This post is the first in what will eventually be a series of posts on how to write a paper.

Besides the title, the first part of a paper that most people read is the abstract. An abstract can be thought of as similar to the blurb on the back of a novel. It’s a teaser designed to convince the reader to read the whole paper. Potential readers will use it to decide if they want to read the rest of the paper. It is used to understand what the paper is (supposed to be) about. It should give a quick over view of the paper, allowing readers to decide if the paper will likely meet their needs and is worth their time to read the rest.

This means that an abstract is a very important part of the paper as it’s the hook. If you can’t convince people that they should read your paper then people will never know about your ideas and no one will ever reference your paper. For this reason, it’s important to be very clear and very concise in your abstract.

Abstracts often have word limits around 150 words. This means there’s not a lot of space to be wordy. These words limits are great practice on how to describe your research concisely. You have no choice but to find a way to summarize (clearly) your paper in the fewest words as possible.

When writing your abstract you should keep the following four questions in mind.

  1. What is your topic?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. What did you do?
  4. What are your results?

These questions give a general overview of your paper while also working to convince potential readers of its importance. They also provide an easy method to start writing the abstract, by writing a one – two sentence answer to each question. By sticking to one or two sentences you will have to be concise and can only focus on the absolute highlights.

Once you have answered all the questions above you can see how much space you have left. Based on that, you can decide if there’s other pieces of information that makes your paper sound more attractive that you should include.

While I do stress that your abstract should be as concise as possible, it is possible to go too far. If you’re given 150 words, make sure you use at least 100 of them. While you want to give the bare bones, you also want your paper to sound interesting and exciting. The abstract is a taste of the rest of the paper. You don’t want your paper to come across as boring or dry.

Finally, if there is any part of your research that is particularly exciting, new or novel, then make sure you mention it in the abstract. Remember, the abstract is there to convince readers that you’ve written a paper on an interesting topic, with interesting results, and that they should want to find out more.


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