Writing an Abstract

What is an abstract?

An abstract is a brief summary of a scientific report or research paper - see the end of this guide for information on writing a humanities abstract. While searching databases, researchers read abstracts to decide whether the full papers are valuable. An effective abstract concisely communicates a paper's main ideas and serves as a signpost to interested readers. Because the abstract summarizes and highlights content found in the paper's major sections, the best time to write an abstract is late in the writing process.

What should an abstract include?

The abstract highlights the main information in a report, so you should have 1-2 sentences for each main section. You provide background and introduce the topic, state the research question, describe the primary method, report key results, and draw any significant conclusions. An abstract rarely includes literature reviewed and does not often engage in discussion of results. In cases where a discussion of results is warranted (e.g., in scientific articles), the section should be kept brief (i.e., 1-2 sentences) and focus primarily on (1) the acknowledgment of a study’s limitations, (2) significant implications of the data, or (3) potential areas for future study.

Writing an Abstract

First, read abstracts from journals in your field and abstracts from journals where you want to publish. The description provided above applies to most abstracts, but you will encounter a few variations. Some journals, such as The Journal of Emergency Medicine, call for a structured approach using subheadings:

  • Background
  • Objectives
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Conclusions

This approach, used in a variety of fields, makes writing the 200-250 word abstract highly organized and leaves nothing to chance. You communicate concisely under each subheading, usually 1-3 sentences.

Most other journals expect a similar format, just without the subheadings. You might try writing with the subheadings and then removing them later. You should be left with 6-10 concise sentences like the sentences in this abstract from Web Ecology.

Finally, some journals prefer a results-driven approach. The author introduces the topic, may mention the research question, and then moved to results and interpretation. Notice the first three words of the second sentence in this abstract from Science: "We found that ..." The authors are clearly discussing the results. To write this type of abstract, use the bulleted list above and omit Objectives and Methods. Write a more concise abstract that focuses on what your study found and what it means. 

How do I use keywords?

Some journals encourage the listing of specific keywords at the end of an abstract. These keywords (1) provide the reader insight into what topics will be primarily covered within the article and (2) function as search terms to help indexes and search engines to find the article online. The exact formatting of these keywords may vary from one writing style to another (e.g., APA versus MLA). Please visit the appropriate writing guide for your formatting style for more specific formatting information.

editing and polishing an abstract

Keep the abstract short, precise, and uncluttered. Avoid unfamiliar abbreviations and acronyms. Do not make in-text references to your sources. An abstract is sometimes separated from the rest of the paper for indexing, so you cannot assume a reader will have access to your bibliography. Do not use tables, figures, or illustrations, and avoid any long lists in the text.

writing a Humanities CFP/abstract

In the humanities the term "abstract" often means a brief summary of your work given as a conference proposal in response to a conference Call for Papers (CFP). Most CFPs will have specific guidelines when it comes to style and formatting. This might include page and word count, how to present authors and quotes, whether the use of footnotes is appropriate, or submission instructions. These instructions may differ based on the individual conference.

If you ever encounter a CFP that does not provide specific formatting guidelines, it is best to keep your word count around 250-500 words and cite authors and titles of works within the text (using italics or quotes) instead of using footnotes. Due to the limited word count, be careful to avoid unnecessary wording, and be sure to use active voice. Be careful not to write broadly about your topic; be clear and concise without losing specificity. 

The following moves can help you craft a professional, compelling abstract:

  1. Start with the big-picture problem: Briefly introduce the discussion in your field that acts as context for your paper.
  2. Briefly identify the gap in the literature: What part of this issue or discussion needs closer investigation?
  3. Explain how your work fills this gap.
  4. Tie into the existing literature: Identify specific materials you are examining or building upon.
  5. Briefly summarize your original contribution, claim, or argument.
  6. End with a strong concluding sentence that signifies why your work is important.

This guide provides additional help and tips for writing an abstract for a CFP.

Works Consulted (MLA, 7th Edition)

Davis, Martha. Scientific Papers and Presentations. San Diego: Academic Press, 2005. Print.

Department of History. “Tips for Writing Conference Paper Abstracts.” NC State University. N.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2022.

Purdue Owl Writing Lab. “Abstracts.” N.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2022.

Purdue Owl Writing Lab. “General Format.” N.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2022.

Swales, John M., and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills. Ann Arbor:

University of Michigan Press, 2004. Print.