This post is about how to write an abstract. Throughout the post, we’ll use our abstract handout, so if you haven’t already done so, please download it by clicking here. Abstracts are miniature versions of your paper. They are concise summaries that help potential readers decide if they want to read your work.
Abstracts are used in a variety of circumstances. They’re used when submitting for a conference, when submitting for publication, or sometimes when applying for a grant. Since an abstract will likely be a reader’s first interaction with your work, you’ll need to make a strong first impression.
If your abstract makes your work seem boring or irrelevant, people aren’t gonna want to read it. But don’t worry. In the post, we’ll teach you the style and the content that you’ll need to write a successful abstract.
The content you need to include when writing an abstract. If you haven’t already done so, please download our abstracts handout. Most abstracts contain four sections: the problem and purpose, the methods, the results, and the conclusions and implications. Purple Man: Hey! That looks familiar! My paper is organized the same way.
That’s because abstracts are summaries of your paper, and like your paper, the abstract will tell a story. There was a problem, we set out to do something or learn something about it, this is what we did, this is what we found, and this is what that means. Purple Man: Ok. Makes sense. Who doesn’t love a good story?
So let’s take a closer look at each of those sections. First, the problem and purpose. The opening sentences of your abstract need to seize your readers’attention, so clearly state the problem and clearly state your purpose. Don’t be afraid to start the purpose sentence with, “The purpose of this study is to _______.” That’s a good way to start. For example, take a look at this problem and purpose Next, let’s talk about your methods.
Now, you’re not going to have a lot of space to go into great detail about your methodology. If the use of a certain instrument is common in your field, you probably don’t need to go into great length about it. So ask yourself, “What are the most significant details about my methodology?” In other words, what will readers need to know to understand your results and your conclusions?
Back to our example After your methods, come your results. Just like the methods section, you need to ask yourself, ” What are the most significant results?” Focus on the results that relate most strongly to your problem and purpose, and to your conclusions and implications.
Here are the results in our example Last, the conclusions and implications. This section should point back to your problem and purpose. What do your results mean in the context of your problem? So here’s the conclusion So there you have it.
That’s the content of most abstracts. Remember, the details may change, but the overall story–that’s going to stay the same.
I thought I’d put together a quick post on my process for putting together an abstract either for a conference paper for submission or for a journal article. So this post is a little bit of an insight into my abstract-writing process which you will likely be able to build upon and expand and mold for your own purposes.
As usual, it will be most useful for those in the humanities as that’s where my research sits, however, I’m sure the fundamental ideas will be useful across disciplines, potentially even into the sciences. Of course, if you’re new around here and this seems like your kind of thing then please do consider commenting. That would all be much appreciated.
With that out the way, however, let’s crack on with it. So, without wanting to patronize in any way, it seems to me that the first question is: what is an abstract for and what purpose does it serve? And it seems to me that, within academia, there are two main functions of an abstract. For academic conferences, abstracts are used as part of a kind of application process.
You send an abstract to a conference organizer and they use that as a way of deciding whether your research fits in with that conference and whether to invite you or not. And, if they do decide to invite you, they’ll use that abstract in order to decide where to place you within the conference program.
In terms of journals, sometimes abstracts used in a similar way; I find often around themed issues where editors are inviting submissions around a particular topic. However, for the most part, journals will expect you to submit a full draft of your article on spec. In this context, then, the abstract serves as a kind of window into your article so that if and when it is published potential readers can browse that abstract before deciding whether or not to read your full article.
I think this use of an abstract is sometimes a little bit overlooked. I think often we prioritize the notion of getting published as being the key goal but actually, beyond this, as well as just to getting published you want your work to be read.
Both these contexts, though it might seem slightly different, the abstract actually serves a very similar purpose and is very important, as it’s these few hundred words that are likely going to decide whether you get to present to that conference or not or whether your article gets actual eyes upon it or not.
With such a limited word count, then, what should we leave in and what should we leave out? Well, Phillip Koopman suggests that an abstract should have five core elements. Your motivation for writing an article or paper. Your Problem Statement; what are you trying to discover or argue?
Your approach in the humanities would often be the theoretical tools that you’ll be building your argument upon. Your results; again, the spoilers. What are your conclusions? And, finally, what Koopman refers to as conclusions but what I’d call the impact; why should we care about any of this and what are the implications of those conclusions that you’ve come to?
While such an approach might seem a little formulaic, I actually really like this break down of what anabstract should include. I think that, by using one or two sentences to answer each of those questions, you can ensure your abstract is balanced, giving a good, balanced overview of the entire argument contained in the article or presentation and therefore giving the reader of it the information they need to make their choice on whether to read or accept that abstract.
I often think that talking about something entirely theoretically can be just as confusing as not talking about it at all and so what I thought I’d do was, by way of an example, try to put together an abstract for a post I recently released as part of my Politix series on Bojack Horseman.
We’re going to take these ideas by Koopman and see how we can take the post on Bojack Horseman and sum it down into an abstract. So, here is my abstract for How Bojack Horseman Critiques the1990s. Step one, then, is motivation.
My motivation for creating this post was fairly clear: the TV show is popular, therefore TV show is notable, therefore discussing that TV show is a worthwhile act. In my abstract, then, I might state that “Bojack Horseman is an incredibly popular TV show and has been widely praised for its engagement with contemporary celebrity culture. Here, as well as just claiming that the TV show is popular, and therefore important to discuss in that way, I’ve also hinted at the fact that there has been the previous discussion about this TV show, and therefore that perhaps lends weight to my decision to discuss it too.
My problem statement, then, was that, while I felt that there have been many conversations surrounding its take on celebrity culture and mental health—and while I thought that those were important and incredibly revealing—I felt less had been said about how on the show engages with how we perceive the past. There was something a gap of a gap in the discourse here, then, what in academia we potentially call a “gap in the literature”.
My problem statement, then, is that I’m gonna solve this gap in the literature by filling it. So, in my abstract, I might write that “while much has been written about the show’s discourses on mental health and contemporary celebrity culture, less has been said about how the show critiques our perceptions of the recent past”. So, here, we have already a sense of what’s going to be discussed within that post essay.
Now I’ll move onto my approach; how am I going to make that discussion and make my eventual argument. Well, within that post essay, I largely draw on ideas from Frederic Jameson’s book in which he delineates between notions of parody, pastiche, and it’s very much those ideas that formulate my argument.
It is a place where very clearly that the role of summarizing what actually takes place within the essay itself takes place. Because, within the post itself, I go to great lengths to introduce Jameson’s ideas, to explain them to thereader in case they’re not familiar with them, and to provide nuance and mould them to my purposes within that post essay.
However within the abstract, there is no time for that, so you have to grow comfortable with the idea that your abstract is not going to have all those caveats within it. So, for this sentence, I’m gonna simplify and simply say that “in this post essay I draw uponFrederic Jameson’s delineation of pastiche and parody within cultural texts in order to consider the relationship within Bojack Horsemanbetween.
The cultural attitudes of the 1990s and the present-day and the perception of the former from the point of view of the latter”. Great, sonow I come to results. This is where, if I’m writing in the humanities (as I always), then I’m gonna say what my argument is with an indication as to how that argument ends.
So, here, it’s fairly blunt. I’m gonna say that “I argue that, while Bojack Horseman initially invites us to view the 1990s within the terms of what Jameson refers to as pastiche, as the series continues, it gradually erodes this rose-tinted view of the past in order to critique how we process the recent past”.
Finally, here, in expressing the importance of this argument and the impact of my post essay, I think I’m mainly interested in expressing how my reading of Bojack Horseman potentially elevates it as a notable point of discussion and it’s subversiveness as a cultural text. So, by doing that, I’m kind of implying, by association, that my post essay is kind of important because it is my essay that draws those ideas out of the text.
So, here, I’m going to write that “Through such a manipulation of the audience’s point of view, Bojack Horseman invites the audience to reinterpret their perceptions of previous cultural eras and thus is afar more subversive piece of television than we have perhaps previously given it credit for”.
What we’ve ended up with, then, is a far, far from the perfect rough first draft of an abstract that is 191 words long. This gives us a lot of wiggle room. For example, I might decide to add specifically that I talked at length about the character of Hank Hippopopolous and the allusions within Bojack Horseman to crimes committed by Bill Cosby and allegations towards David Letterman.
I would also very, very likely play with the language a little bit to ensure that it is as articulate and as engaging as possible. While I’d certainly warn against swallowing a thesaurus and making it a really flowery or almost-unintelligible-because-it’s-so-wordyabstract, I do think that the adjectives and verbs that we choose to express our ideas are really important.
I often think that using the active voice rather than the passive voice also helps to articulate why it’s important that you’re presenting this piece of work rather than anyone else. For now, however, I hope that that serves as a useful example of how I go about writing an abstract.
I’m sure that lots of people out there will have lots of ideas to build on these (or argue against what I’ve said) and I think that’s really important, it would be great to have those discussions down in the comments. As always, this is the start of a conversation not the end of one.
Central to my personal approach, I think, and one of the reasons that I found that structure so useful is remaining pure to the core function of an abstract and retaining balance throughout, really just explaining to the reader what your work is about. Because, while flowery words and engaging phrasing canreally help to lift your abstract off the page.
It’s actually those fundamentals that will make it do the job that it’s meant to do. Thank you very much for reading my post! I hope you found this post useful in some way. Again, if you’re new around here then please do consider commenting. Also, if you think this post is a vague positive for the world then a share it with your friends helps to spread the word a little further and get more people’s eyes on this post. Thank you very, very much for reading once again and have a great day!