Writing an Abstract

Writing an abstract is a skill like any other.  

Abstracts are short summaries of your research and, although the format may vary slightly depending on where they are being submitted, there are standard guidelines about what should be in an abstract. The purpose of an abstract is to provide readers a brief summary of your study so that they may determine if they want to learn more about the research. An abstract should use proper terminology but should also be geared toward a reader who may have only a cursory familiarity with the research area.

General Guidelines

  • Omit all researcher names and affiliations from the body of the abstract.
  • Avoid the use of new technical words, laboratory slang, words not defined in dictionaries or abbreviations and terminology not consistent with internationally accepted guidelines. If you do use abbreviations define them in body of the abstract the first time they are used.
  • Eliminate jargon. Showing off your technical vocabulary will not demonstrate your research’s value. If you can’t avoid using a technical term, add a nontechnical synonym to help nonspecialists infer the term’s meaning.
  • Brevity is the goal. Most abstracts have a word limit of around 250 to 300 words. Omit needless words, redundant modifiers, over-the-top diction, and excessive detail.
  • An abstract should have the same structure a research article: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. Depending on the required format you may be required to use these or similar headings within the body of the abstract but even if you do not use these headings the structure of the abstract should implicitly follow this format.
  • Eliminate expressions such as “It is my opinion that,” “I have concluded,” “The main point supporting my view concerns” or “Certainly, there is little doubt as to.” Focus readers’ attention solely the findings, not on opinion.
  • Examine other abstracts for examples of successful abstracts.  If you are submitting to a journal, look at the abstracts for papers recently published in that journal. If you are submitting to a conference, look at abstracts printed in past years’ meeting programs.
  • Before submitting your abstract have a colleague who has limited knowledge of your research area read and comment on it to determine how understandable it is. Remember you will often know more about your research area than those who review your work so having someone with a similar knowledge base to the potential reviewers will help determine how well you have written the abstract.
  • Remember an abstract is you telling a short story about your research.

Things To Ask Yourself When You Are Writing An Abstract

  • Have I stated why my research is important to a larger problem?
  • Have I stated the specific aims of my research project?
  • Have I indicated the most important hypothesis(es)?
  • Have I identified the type of study I conducted (experimental, clinical trial, non-experimental, survey, case study, etc).
  • Have I clearly and precisely identified the sample being studied? Be specific. For example if you are studying veterans over 60 who are cardiology patients, state that rather than just stating cardiology patients. 
  • Have I clearly identified the variables being examined? State explicitly what your independent and dependent variables are. Use general terms when possible and more specific terms when necessary.  
  • Have I stated the most important finding clearly and in a way that someone without deep technical knowledge of the field can understand? 
  • Do the results reflect what I actually did in terms of statistical analyses?  Be prudent in reporting statistical findings. You may provide statistics but don’t rely on them to completely tell the story of the findings. You also need to communicate the inferences from your statistical findings. If you conducted correlations or regressions do you describe the relationships between variables? If you examined naturally occurring groups or treatment groups (t-test, ANOVA), do you frame the results around how the groups were different on your dependent measure(s)?
  • Are the findings reported directly related the hypothesis stated earlier? Are the findings consisted or inconsistent with prediction of the hypothesis?
  • Are my conclusions simply a restating of the results?  Conclusions should not just be a restating of the results. The conclusions should be about the implications of the results and should refer back to the purpose of the study stated earlier in the abstract.