An abstract has to do a tremendous amount of communicating to diverse readers, all in less than 250 words (sometime just 125). Follow the five steps in this article to write abstracts that get your paper sent out for review, found, and cited; how to identify mistakes in poorly written abstracts; and how to improve yours line by line.
Five steps to writing a better abstract
- Create a keyword yellow brick road. Highlight all potential keywords in your abstract. Does it look like a yellow brick road (lots of yellow highlighting)? If so, you have a keyword-packed abstract. If not, go back and add as many relevant ones as you can fit. Write out all possible search terms researchers might use and compare this list to your abstract. Add more. Include research design (“continental-scale sampling effort”), study objects (“family firms”), theory (“transaction-cost theory”), methods (“time-calibrated phylogenetic framework”), and findings (“negative effect of change-oriented actions”). Some keywords might not be obvious to you, but will be to researchers looking for your paper. One client loved these abstract keywords: “‘Woody plants,’ ‘global scale,’ ‘size,’ ‘height,’ ‘shrubs,’ ‘trees’—these are all keywords that I’m looking for.” Include a range, from small-scale details (“size”, “height”) to field-level terminology (“organization studies”, “community ecology”) to help your work get found in search engines academics use to find papers. Many of these engines limit the search to the title, abstract, and keywords. The abstract is where those keywords need to be.
Think like your searchers: “‘Woody plants,’ ‘global scale,’ ‘size,’ ‘height,’ ‘shrubs,’ ‘trees’—these are all keywords that I’m looking for.”
- No wasted words. “Therefore,” “moreover,” and “it is argued” are all wasted words and phrases. Every word counts in an abstract, so each one needs to serve a specific purpose (e.g., pulling the reader in). Passive constructions, indirect phrasing, or weak language have no place. “The purpose of this research was to…” can be cut down to “I tested…”, a savings of five precious words. “This study suggests a framework that reconciles…” can be revised to “The new framework we introduce reconciles…” It only saves one word, but the second version is much more direct and actively tells what you did: “introduce” a “new framework” instead of “this study” that “suggests” one. The revised version also changes the focus, from “this study” to “the new framework,” emphasizing the object of interest. Make a game of eliminating as many wasted words as you can. With practice, you’ll find many to cut, leaving more space for the essentials.
- From the first sentence, tell. First sentences that warm readers up to your main point don’t tell. It’s not until the third or fourth sentence that many writers are “warm,” meaning where readers start to get interested. It’s at this point where readers begin to understand what the researchers did and the see most important idea(s). Think like your readers: Put the most important idea first instead of hiding it in the body of the text. Don’t replicate the same language of other abstracts or give overly broad background or context in the first sentences. The following first sentences, for example, don’t tell because they are overly broadly:
- “Body size is a key physiological trait…”
- “Prior research argues that learning performance-enhancing stewardship behavior…”
Try starting, counterintuitively, with the findings, then move on to context. Or ask an unexpected question or share an engaging anecdote, as these researchers did:
- “Our time-calibrated phylogenetic framework reveals linked and drastic shifts in diversification rates in fungal and plant kingdoms.”
- “Can firm efforts shape industry structure?”
- “A decision to offer breakfast to homeless people led to a radical change in a church and its environment.”
Opening with findings, a question, or an anecdote can pull readers in and keep them reading. Never stop revising your first sentence.
- Give us a complete story. While the first sentence needs to tell, the rest of your abstract needs to finish the story. If you introduce in the abstract your hypotheses, a new model, or an experiment, provide the results—as completely and succinctly as possible—in the space you have. Many early-stage writers fear that if they reveal too much in the abstract, readers won’t keep reading. The opposite is true. Introducing something and not giving readers the results will leave them feeling cheated and less likely to keep reading. Readers intrigued by your findings will want to know how you reached your results and whether or not they agree. Romeo and Juliet is still read even though Shakespeare gives away the entire plot at the beginning of the play.
- Think like your searchers. Your abstract is how researchers find your paper and decide whether to cite it. If your abstract is hard to read, researchers might not include it in a synthesis review paper, which means fewer citations. An abstract that can be easily found and that clearly states the significance gives you valuable opportunities to expand the influence of your research. Researchers who can understand from your abstract what your research is about and why it’s significant are more likely to contact you to collaborate.