If you’ve read a research paper, you’ve seen an abstract. This is a self-contained summary of the full paper and is placed right at the forefront. An abstract is how a research paper makes its first impressions with journal editors, funders, and the worldwide pool of academic and general readers. So, naturally, it has to be presented perfectly.
Does this mean that a researcher must also be an A-list writer to succeed? Not at all!
There are some simple tricks and skills associated with research communication that can be applied to writing abstracts.
Here are ten tips to write an attractive abstract.
1. Leave it for last
An abstract appears at the top of the page. It is the first thing that the reader engages with. But during the writing process it should come last.
This is because an abstract is meant to be a comprehensive but concise summary of the full paper. And how can you be sure of what the right information to include in the short form are, if you don’t have all the details down in the long form yet?
Once the full study is on paper, one need simply extract the key points and put them together to make a coherent narrative.
2. Pick your points carefully
The next step is to get down to it. Think about what truly lies at the crux of the manuscript. What are the key background contexts, gaps in the literature, study objectives, methods, results, inferences, and applications of the study? Introduce these key points succinctly in this exact order to create one paragraph. This paragraph is the first draft of your abstract.
3. Prune the paragraph
A first draft is far from final. It is often more difficult to write in short than it is to elaborate. The one or two lines that can be dedicated to each piece of information has to pack the punch. This can be achieved by:
i. Using the active voice: e.g., ‘We performed a model simulation’ as opposed to ‘A model simulation was performed’. The active voice gets the message across in fewer words and registers more directly in the human brain;
ii. Removing all redundancies: e.g., ‘blue color’ or repeating the concept of something being blue in both the methods and the results;
iii. Avoiding technical terms that are not needed;
iv. Using abbreviations only when they’re repeated in the abstract, else using only the full forms;
v. Defining all abbreviations at first instance, except very common ones such as CNN or AI;
vi. Using strong verbs but choosing the simpler synonym where possible: e.g., ‘observed’ instead of ‘visualized’; and
vii. Making sure the sentences flow logically and smoothly from one to the next.
4. Become the grammar grinch
Being nitpicky about grammar, such as making ultra-sure that all the correct articles and prepositions have been used, the commas are all in place, the superscripts and subscripts are as they should be, and so on, can go a long way towards making the reading experience smooth, thereby conveying the message more clearly and easily.
5. Keep to the word count
Most abstracts are expected to be 150 to 250 words long. This is key to journal acceptance and the exact word count required will be mentioned in the journal guidelines. However, sticking to the word count can also help in keeping the content crisp, fresh, and concise and be great motivation for really getting creative with the pruning process.
Nonetheless, do not consider the word count while putting down the first draft. That can be counter productive as it can prevent you from putting down all the necessary points.
6. Adhere to the journal guidelines
The journal guidelines around abstracts are optimized not only for journal aesthetics but also for readability. So, adhering to guidelines such as word counts, subtitles, content sections, etc. can not only help improve your chances of acceptance to the journal, but also help grab more attention and appreciation for your study later on.
7. Adhere to general best practices
There are general conventions and best practices to abstract writing. The major among these is not introducing new information that is absent in the paper. The abstract is squarely for the one paper and that paper alone. Any new information should be reserved for the future paper in which it belongs.
Another major best practice is to avoid citations. The abstract is a snapshot of your study. So, while it is important to include a line or two about previous research for context, this should not be extensive or specific enough to need citation.
A third rule is to never plagiarize. Plagiarism is when content from another paper is written in your paper without due credit. This is an unacceptable practice and should be avoided at all costs. All content should be original, contextualized from other papers, and well mixed with your views before you put it down.
8. Keep a checklist
These steps might seem extensive and not be making the abstract writing process easy at all. But they will make things easy with a bit of practice. A key way in which to ensure you’ve managed all of this is to keep a checklist of what you need to do. After some practice, everything should become organic to your writing process and be smooth sailing.
You can also read up tips on how to select points to build the content for each section (introduction, methods, results, and conclusion), how to construct the abstract, and so on, from myriad websites on the internet. Find a curated list below!
9. Take a break
Often, we tend to miss things in our writing when we’re at it for long durations. It is helpful, in such instances, to take a break and come back later with a fresh mind and perspective. This helps to catch inconsistencies that will otherwise pass under the radar.
10.Ask for help
Once done, even after taking that break, it can be helpful to get a second pair of eyes on the abstract. Even the best writers always need an editor. So, ask your editor or writer friend to do a proofread, or ask your peer researcher if the abstract makes sense and flows well. It doesn’t hurt to be just a little bit extra cautious.
I hope that was informative and helpful and you now feel equipped to get down to writing that perfect abstract your paper deserves.
Here is the promised list of potential sources of more detailed advice:
1. Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper by The University of Wisconsin Writing Center: https://writing.wisc.edu/handbook/assignments/writing-an-abstract-for-your-research-paper/
2. How to write a good abstract for a scientific paper or conference presentation by Chittaranjan Andrade: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136027/
3. Writing an Abstract by the George Mason University Writing Center: https://writingcenter.gmu.edu/guides/writing-an-abstract
4. Research Guides by University of Southern California Libraries: https://libguides.usc.edu/writingguide/abstract
5. Tips to Understanding and Writing Manuscript Abstracts by Maria S. Plakhotnik: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/nha3.20194
Reference: “A 10-step guide to make your research paper abstract more effective” by Clarinda Cerejo, Editor-in-Chief, Editage Insights, viewed on 19 Aug 2021, https://www.editage.com/insights/a-10-step-guide-to-make-your-research-paper-abstract-more-effective