How to Write an Abstract

Charlie R. Claywell
Closeup of typing on computer

With more documents being accessed online, abstracts have taken on an increasingly important role. However, the purpose of an abstract remains the same: to give enough information for an individual to decide whether to read the original document.

Types of Abstracts

The two types of abstracts are informative or descriptive. Informative abstracts are used for structured documents, such as scientific experiments, a survey, or an investigation. Descriptive abstracts, sometimes called indicative abstracts, are written for essays, books, or editorials.

General Guidelines

Because many of the original reports are viewed online, when writing an abstract include keywords and search terms that will attract individuals seeking the information found in the original paper. It is important to remember that an abstract is not just a summary or a critique, but rather a concise explanation of another document.

Length

The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina notes that an informational abstract should be no more than 10 percent of the length of the original document, so it is usually at least 250 words. An indicative abstract is about 100 words.

Goal

The overriding purpose of an informational abstract is to let the reader decide if they want to read the report. Even though that goal also exists for a descriptive abstract, the primary aim of a descriptive abstract is summarize the chronology of the report in a concise, intelligent manner.

Writing an Informative Abstract

A good approach to take when writing this type of abstract is to adopt the mindset of an unbiased reporter and convey what the study or experiment is about without interjecting personal opinion. According to Indiana University, informative abstracts have four key parts: purpose, methodology, results, and conclusions.

Each section of an informative abstract should accomplish the following:

  • Purpose: This should state either the reason for, or objectives of the experiment or investigation.
  • Methodology: This section describes the methods and techniques highlighted in the original report.
  • Results: To be concise, this portion only includes the most important results from the work.
  • Conclusion: This segment states the evaluation or analysis of the experimental results and should briefly explain their implications.

Writing a Descriptive or an Indicative Abstract

Since a descriptive abstract is 100 words or less, a lot of information must be packed into those words. Indiana University also notes that descriptive abstracts have three main parts: scope, arguments used, and conclusions. Each section should accomplish the following:

  • Scope: This should state the range of material dealt with in the original document. For example, an abstract about Jack London's first eight novels would state that the report covers the years 1900 to 1903 or name the eight novels being examined.
  • Arguments Used: This section states the main arguments as well as the counterarguments used in the original document. These are presented in chronological order to show the progression of thought and logic.
  • Conclusions: This section reports the original document's closing arguments and the implications of those arguments. This section is based on what the original document states and cannot include personal opinion.

Writing Process

Good writing consists of rewriting, and abstracts are subject to this concept -- maybe more so since the writer must concisely convey a significant amount of information. Once the abstract is written, complete the following four steps from Purdue University to improve the quality:

  1. Reread the original document with the goal of writing an abstract and specifically look for the respective parts like purpose or methods.
  2. After rereading the original document, write a rough draft without looking at the report, using your own words to explain what the report is about in an abstract manner. Do not copy and paste sentences from the original document or try to summarize the content. Write everything based on your knowledge of the report.
  3. Clean up the rough draft by removing any unnecessary information, clarify sentences and concepts as needed, streamline text to remove wordiness, and add any information left out in the first draft of your abstract.
  4. Proofread and correct any errors.

Still Need Help?

Becoming skilled at abstract writing is often just a matter of practice, but while learning, also read published abstracts and trying to emulate them. Look at good versus bad abstract examples to help reiterate what an excellent abstract entails.

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How to Write an Abstract