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What a portable abstract can do for you

With a portable abstract, you're ready for your next conference, journal article, or funding application

"What is your research about?"

"What are you working on?"

"Tell me about the project you're proposing."

Colleagues at conferences and faculty hiring committees will ask you one of these three (or some variant) when you talk to them in person; editors and reviewers will want to know the answer(s) as they read your paper or proposal. Having a succinct answer ready - a portable abstract - will help you present your work more confidently and will increase your chances of being published and funded, because the answers you give will help your peers and readers understand your research and make informed decisions based on them.

Communicating the essential - in 250 words

The abstract is arguably the second most important part of your journal article or proposal. After the title, this tiny text can determine whether readers keep going. That's a lot of pressure on 250 words: you need to explain and convince, and do it fast. Here's some advice for how to do it quickly and easily.

For researchers who hate writing abstracts

In all my years working with academic writers, I haven't come across one who actually enjoys writing abstracts. I think I know why. The thought of writing an abstract instantly summons heavy and paralyzing associations: editors; reviewers; criticism; (word) limits; the possibility of publication; the fear of rejection; thoughts about starting another cycle with another journal; another delay; career prospects, success, failure; and so on. When faced with the task writing the abstract, researchers freeze in their tracks, and their normal calm and rational ability to communicate is thrown aside as they patch together a text that is the exact opposite of clear communication. Curiously, though, when I ask them to talk about their work and to imagine the consequences of it and why it matters, they're terribly fluent. Talking about their research, then, is not the problem.

In a recent workshop, I tried something new. I wanted to harness researchers' ease in talking about their work to overcome - or at least counteract - some of their difficulty in writing abstracts. The Q&A approach I used works by having researchers answer questions that correspond to the content they need to include in the abstract.

What an abstract needs to include

All journals and funding agencies have specific information they want included in abstracts, and you should closely follow their guidelines, but in general you need to include

  • a statement or two introducing your field, topic, or area of investigation

  • a few sentences with more detail about the topic you're investigating, particularly what is problematic about it: what's not ideal, not working, unknown, or unexplained

  • what you found or hope to find (the results)

  • an explanation about how your results change (or will change) what is currently known about your topic, the field, or what prior research would lead us to expect

  • a couple of sentences explaining the context of these results - that is, what they demonstrate, what the mechanisms are, how it works or integrates with other systems, etc.

  • and finally, a few sentences about the broader significance of these results and what they will allow researchers or practitioners to do with them, such as revise theory, develop new applications, solve a particular problem, etc.

The questions for the Q&A approach

Instead of writing an abstract, answer the questions below about your research. For each question, freely write as much as you can - you'll revise your answers in a later step (scroll down for a downloadable, editable PDF version).

  1. What do we need to know to understand what you’re working on?

  2. What is the current state of knowledge in your field when it comes to the research you’re doing? What do researchers currently believe or do? What is the current state-of-the-art?

  3. How does what you’re working on – your research – fit or relate to research findings or the current state of research in your field?

  4. What is problematic in your field? Specifically, what is less than ideal, unknown, not well understood, etc.?

  5. What problem within your field does your research address?

  6. How does your research address this problem?

  7. What [did you do/will you do] in your research? What method/plan/protocol [did/will] you use to investigate or study this problem?

  8. What [is/do you expect will be] your most important finding?

  9. Why is your research important? Why should people in your field care about it?

  10. What about your field [has changed/will change] as a result of your research? What will researchers do or think differently when they know about your research?

Once you've answered these questions, you can simply copy and paste the answers, in order, into a separate document (or use the free PDF download to do it in the same document) and you have a working version of your abstract. In other words, remove the questions, and your answers are the working abstract. You can refine it, rewrite it, revise it, and shorten it as needed, but the important thing is that you have a working version, which makes it infinitely easier to get to your final portable abstract.

The abstract you carry with you

A portable abstract is one that's ready and waiting for those encounters with new colleagues you meet at conferences asking who you are and what you're working on. It's the jump start to your journal article - a compact and condensed version of it that you can expand on to write each section. And it's the tiny text that identifies the new, novel, and noteworthy in your proposal, articulating why your proposal should be funded over the hundreds of others competing for the same funds. The abstract forces you to communicate the essential and it drives the writing of the paper or proposal. Who knew writing an abstract could be as easy as answering questions?

Download an editable PDF to develop your own portable abstract:

A Q&A approach to writing an abstract
Download PDF • 1.75MB

You might also like this companion blog on how to analyze abstracts and academic writing:

Need some extra help? Schedule a new-client get-to-know-each-other session to find out whether I'm the right person to help you with your next journal article or funding proposal.


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