5 Key Steps to Writing an Effective Abstract
You’ve worked incredibly hard on your research paper, and you’re not going to let it languish somewhere, hidden away from the world—you want people to read and cite it. You want it to be part of the academic conversation and to make a difference.
After looking at different academic journals that cover your field, you’ve finally decided where to submit your paper for consideration. It’s important to make this decision carefully because each journal has a different scope and can expose your paper to a different audience—you don’t want to waste time approaching irrelevant publications. Every journal out there has its own submission guidelines, so make sure you read those very carefully, but the one thing nearly all of them will require (besides a manuscript, of course) is an abstract.
An abstract serves as a type of summary of the study, a quick look at what the reader can expect from the full text. It includes important information such as the main problem or focus, the research methodology, the findings, and the conclusion of the study. It’s not like a book blurb for a novel—in an academic abstract, you have to give away the ending. In this sense, it’s like a dramatically condensed version of your full paper. The abstract will also show up in databases and indexes, so it’s important to give it the attention it deserves as it’s the first thing people will read when researching your topic. Your abstract will generally inform prospective readers’ decision on whether to give your full paper a chance.
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Though writing an abstract might sound straightforward, a lot of academic writers struggle with it because they have to cram their entire research into a paragraph or two (the exact word count of an abstract depends on a journal’s guidelines). It’s hard to condense all your work into so few words, and it requires discernment to determine what to include. So, let’s take a look at the key steps in writing an effective abstract.
1. State the main problem or focus
The first thing the editorial board of an academic journal will want to know is what your paper is about, so the introduction of your abstract should state the main problem or focus of your research in the clearest and most concise way possible. This should be the first thing you mention in your abstract as it sets the stage for your study.
Remember that your abstract might be your only chance to impress an editor and make them want to read your entire paper, so include some context and be sure to mention any distinctive or innovative angles that make your work stand out from others on the same topic. With millions of academic papers published every year, showing why yours is uniquely valuable is key to success.
2. Outline the research methodology
Once you’ve stated your main focus, you should outline any relevant or innovative methodologies or data sources you used in your research. You’ll also want to define the purpose of your research by stating why it’s important—if you can’t justify its value, readers won’t invest their time in it. You can also mention any gaps in knowledge or previous research that aided your work to strengthen the argument for its worth. If space allows, mention anything that makes your paper unique or particularly valuable.
3. Disclose your findings and conclusion
You obviously don’t want to give away every detail, but this is the section to which you should allocate the highest number of words. It’s your chance to summarize what you have discovered and what your key findings are so that editors and readers know what to expect from your article. Your results and conclusions are the most important part of your research, the part that can spur advances in your field, so make sure you give them proper attention in your abstract. Include key conclusions and any new facts that will make prospective readers want to learn more.
4. Embed relevant keywords
Many writers don’t start thinking about the abstract before they’ve finished their manuscript, which doesn’t leave much time to craft a well-written, carefully thought-out summary or to embed the right keywords to facilitate online discovery after publication.
Of course, you can’t summarize a paper that hasn’t been written yet, so we’re not saying you should write your abstract before your paper is done—we suggest keeping notes while writing your manuscript so when the time comes, you already have an outline or at least a list of keywords you want to embed in the abstract. In particular, you should focus on including words relevant to your theme or theory and those in your title to ensure consistency across the paper and the abstract. Keywords are also vital for SEO purposes, helping interested readers discover your work.
5. Mind your language
An abstract should be direct, clear, and concise, focusing on information rather than prose, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with bad writing. You have a lot of information to pack into a small space, so the tighter your writing is, the more details you can include. The abstract is the first taste of your writing editors and readers will get, so make it sound good, too—poor writing will erode your credibility, even if your field has nothing to do with writing.
Use the present tense and don’t waste too many words on explanatory or descriptive clauses that make the language flowery, but do make sure it flows smoothly and naturally, without sounding forced or dry. It’s certainly a delicate balance, which is why you want to give yourself enough time to compose your abstract, edit it properly, and get feedback on it from other people.
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