10 tips for writing the perfect abstract

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open-book-1428428__340After hours of intensive research, you have exciting findings you want to share with the world via your selected target journal. After compiling your methodology and detailing your findings, you have a few hundred words with which to catch the reader’s interest, convey the essence of your article and draw them into reading the rest of your study. With online search databases typically only displaying the abstract, this single paragraph needs to entice the reader to obtain a copy of the full paper.

An abstract is a concise summary of the content of a paper for the purposes of journal submission or a conference ‘call for papers’. The word abstract comes from the Latin abstractum, which means a condensed form of a longer piece of writing. Other than the title, the abstract is the most-read part of an article. In one paragraph, you need to convey the premise for your study, the methodology employed and the results and implications of your findings. An interesting, well-crafted abstract is more likely to draw the reader’s eye over the rest of your article and it is therefore essential to get it right.

With increasing pressure to accumulate citations and the recent shift towards the promotion of your work through blogs and social media, it is more important than ever to be skilled at communicating your research in an accessible and far-reaching way. As a published scientist and the founder of Erudito (an editing company specialising in academic manuscripts), I have extensive experience of what journal editors are looking for and what constitutes an effective abstract that will drive up readership and ultimately increase citations. Here, I provide some tips on how to construct an abstract with impact.

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10 tips for writing the perfect abstract

1. Ensure it can stand alone
An abstract must stand alone as one well-developed coherent paragraph. It should inform the audience of all the essential elements of the full-length paper, namely the background, aim or purpose, methods, results and conclusions/implications, while strictly following the chronology of the report. A well-developed abstract will convey the essence of your whole paper.

2. Write the abstract last
Write the main body of the paper first, leaving the abstract as the final job. After the main body of the text is complete, re-read your manuscript and extract the key points from each section. Write one or two sentences conveying each of these key points, providing all the essential information needed to understand the basis of the study. Do not add any new information and avoid cutting and pasting sentences from the report.

3. Make it concise
While eliminating superfluous information and wordiness is a good approach for your entire paper, brevity is especially important in your abstract. Removing redundancy can enhance the flow of your summary and thereby readers’ understanding of your study.

4. Edit for flow and consistency
Make each sentence succinct and ensure logical connections between statements/ideas. In addition, be fastidious about spelling and consistency in the presentation of technical terms, symbols, chemicals and organism names.

5. Keep the language simple
Use the language of the original paper but in more simplified form to appeal to a wider audience. Use plain English as much as possible. This approach makes your abstract intelligible to a broad readership but without losing important technical detail applicable to specialists in your field.

6. Adhere to word count limitations
The abstract word limit for journals is typically around 200 words. If the abstract is too long it may be rejected or cut down to size by a ruthless editor. It is therefore advisable to get it right yourself.

7. Include keywords and phrases
Journals often request that a list of keywords be provided. These carefully considered keywords or phrases should also be used throughout your abstract to increase the visibility of your article in database searches.

8. Avoid references
Most journals specify that references should not be included in the abstract. Indeed, most sentences can be reworked to remove unnecessary references to past papers.

9. Avoid abbreviations where possible
As a general rule, if an abbreviation is used three times or fewer, it should be removed. Check the journal guidelines for which abbreviations can be used without definition.

10. Ask others to read
Ask as many people as you can enlist, including colleagues, associates from other professions and friends, to read your abstract. Take on board their feedback. Finally, proofread and spell check for errors.

The effort invested in formulating an effective abstract will be rewarded with increased exposure and recognition of your work. Moreover, the carefully crafted wording in your abstract can be directly adapted for blog posts and social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, disseminating your research to an even wider audience. Clear communication is therefore key.

Dr Kate Fox is a microbiologist, science editor and communicator, and founder of Erudito, an editing company specialising in academic manuscripts. Her blog articles provide writing and publishing tips for academics. She can be found on Twitter at @DrKateFox.

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