Writing an Abstract

For an academic writer, the abstract is a crucial piece of writing: a good abstract will help readers see the nature and import of your work, while a bad one can create a mistaken impression that will turn readers away. For students and scholars who are struggling to start and/or complete a research project, writing an abstract is a great exercise.

What is an abstract?

The abstract is your work’s “elevator pitch”–a brief description to convince people of your work’s value. An abstract wants to be a short, clear, focused, and compelling presentation of the most important issues in your research.

  1. What are you discussing (the subject matter)?
  2. Why should the reader care and why do you care (the subject’s significance)?
  3. What did you find (or hope to find) about the subject (your research question or focus)?
  4. How did you study (or plan) the subject (the research methodology)?
  5. What were your conclusions? (When appropriate, of course: if you’re writing an abstract for a research proposal you won’t have conclusions to report.)

Depending on the length of your abstract, you might write one to four sentences on each of these points. Word limits on abstracts vary. Both APA and MLA call for abstracts of 150 to 250 words, and these are good practical limits in terms of reaching an audience quickly. If you try to touch on all five of the points in my list above in about 150 words, that’s maybe two sentences for each point. That doesn’t allow you much detail, but that’s fine because your point isn’t to show all your work, but rather to convince a reader that your project is worthy of their further attention, and brevity helps because a short, focused abstract will make the reader think “I won’t waste time with this.” Detail and complexity should be saved for the main text, where you will (hopefully) discuss strengths and weaknesses of your chosen theories and methods.

Writing an Abstract as an Exercise

Writing an abstract is a good exercise for a struggling writer for several reasons.

  1. It can be done quickly. It’s perfectly possible to write an abstract in 10 minutes. It might not be a good abstract, but it might not be bad. The point of doing the exercise, though, is not to get it right, but to get practice. Because it’s over quickly, it’s done easily. If you only spend 10 minutes, there’s little loss if you write something awful, and relatively big benefit if you come up with something you like.
  2. Because it takes so little time, it is an exercise that can be treated as an exercise (i.e., something that you work for practice to develop skill or ability)–rather than a final product (i.e., a piece of writing to submit for review). It could be viewed as a warm-up to a session of more serious writing in the way that a musician might play some scales at the beginning of a session of practice.
  3. Because it is short, it forces a tight focus, which can be incredibly valuable for writers who are falling prey to one of the big contributors to writer’s block: having too many ideas. It’s great to have a lot of ideas…until it’s time to write them down and they compete for space. Writing a short abstract forces you to face those choices in a very stark fashion. Trying to write an abstract can force you to confront (and maybe reduce) an over-abundance of ideas.
  4. Because it takes so little time and forces focus, writing an abstract as an exercise can encourage exploration: write one version, and then write the next using things that you left out of the first version.
  5. It helps clarify your sense of purpose. One big barrier that many writers face is that they get buried in the details of their work and it starts to feel so esoteric it’s meaningless. Writing an abstract forces focus on your purposes–on why you started the project in the first place. Being conscious of the larger reasons that brought you to your specific research project can help support your sense that your work is valuable, even if it is esoteric.
  6. It gives you a holistic view of the project and how all the pieces fit together. This can help you negotiate complicated details, and especially help you recognize which details are really important for your study, and which can be left out.
  7. It’s something that you’re relatively frequently called upon to do, so practice doing it, and work invested in writing a good abstract can help on a regular basis. If, as a regular practice, you wrote a 100-word abstract in 15 minutes every day for a few weeks, you would feel much easier when you have a need or opportunity to write a brief description of your project–whether for department paperwork, fellowship or grant applications, conference applications, etc.

An abstract is one of most important things you’ll write as an academic. If you practice writing abstracts without worrying about getting them wrong, but just to explore and practice, the task will become easier, your research will become better focused, and you’ll have a better abstract draft ready to hand if you ever need one.