Read this before you write your abstract

The abstract is arguably the most important element of a scholarly article, so it should be informative, meaningful and impactful. Michael Willis gives two objectives, and practical tips, to keep in mind

Michael Willis's avatar
2 Feb 2023
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As a researcher, you spend a good deal of time searching through Web of Science, PubMed, Google Scholar or other publication databases, looking for and reading research that is most relevant to your own project. An article’s abstract can help you quickly discern whether the article is worth reading in full. In fact, it may well be the only part of an article that you ever read. When you submit an article to a journal, it’s often the abstract that the editor will read first to determine whether the article is appropriate for the journal and whether it should be peer-reviewed or rejected outright. An abstract is therefore a critically important – some might say the most important – element of a scholarly article.

But writing a good abstract can be challenging; conveying the right amount of information usefully, in the space of 200 to 250 words, is no mean feat. How can you create a meaningful abstract?

You’ll find it helpful to keep these two objectives in mind:

A good abstract should be informative

Put yourself in the shoes of another researcher in your field: will they gain enough information from your abstract to know how relevant your article is to their own research? Will it help them to understand the significance of your research? Will it help them to evaluate whether their own proposed research is likely to be worthwhile?

Abstracts are typically structured or unstructured, depending on journal requirements or style.

What is a structured abstract?

Structured abstracts are common in health sciences and are presented in the same way as a research article, including background or objectives, methods, results and a conclusion. You can use this structure to help format your abstract:

  • Background or objectives: summarise why you conducted the research. What gaps in existing knowledge did you seek to address? What problems were you seeking to solve?
  • Methods: provide a succinct overview, mentioning at least the type of original research (retrospective or case-control study, or systematic review, for example) and type of sample (human patients or animals, for example), as applicable to your research. In the abstract, you don’t need to describe the methods in detail.
  • Results: highlight the main findings, including, for example, sample size and outcomes.
  • Conclusion: report the main implications of your research. What can other researchers learn from your work? What could future research in this area focus on?

What is an unstructured abstract?

Unstructured abstracts are common in social science, humanities and physical science journals, and they generally provide a succinct description or outline of the work undertaken. To write an unstructured abstract, use the same approach as for a structured abstract: summarise the context of your research, your methods, your findings and the key takeaways, but do so as a single uninterrupted paragraph.

Here are examples of a structured and an unstructured abstract.

A good abstract should create impact

Think of your article’s abstract as being like a shop window: you want to grab the attention of passers-by so that they are pulled into exploring your article in depth. Here are three ways to help you achieve this:

Be clear: put what you think is most important first. Use the active voice rather than the passive: for example, “We conducted a review” rather than “A review was conducted”. Avoid imprecise or ambiguous language, and don’t generalise – be specific. Don’t use abbreviations or acronyms, and don’t include citations or hyperlinks.

Be concise: get straight to the point and avoid unnecessary words. Long and complex sentences don’t encourage readers who are pressed for time to carry on reading, and conciseness will help to reduce your word count. Here are some simple examples:

  • Instead of “in order to”, write “to”: “We conducted the study in order to discover…” should be “We conducted the study to discover…”
  • Instead of “despite the fact that”, write “although”.
  • Instead of “in relation to”, write “about”.
  • Instead of “exhibits”, “shows” or “possesses”, write “has”.
  • Instead of “represents” or “is found to be”, write “is”.
  • Avoid using “really” and “very”.
  • Reduce your sentences to the bare minimum necessary. For example: “We investigated how consultants collaborated together over an estimated period of about six months” can be rewritten as: “We investigated how consultants collaborated over six months.”

Be engaging:

  • Keep the journal’s audience firmly in mind. What will appeal most to them? If you’re submitting to a broad scope journal rather than a specialist journal, this might affect the message you need to convey to readers.
  • Include three to five relevant keywords, as this will help your abstract to be picked up more easily by search engines and will also show the direct relevance of your work to another researcher. Here’s some more guidance on how to select effective keywords.
  • Leave your readers wanting more. It is the “why” that entices them the most: Why is your research significant? Why do they need to know about it?

Six more tips you may find useful for writing an abstract

  1. Don’t exaggerate your work in the abstract. It needs to be consistent with the rest of your article. Always describe the impact of your work in relation to other work on the subject. Tempting though it can be to overstate the importance of your work, ensure that the abstract represents it accurately and honestly.
  2. Write your abstract after you’ve written your article – in fact, it should be one of your last tasks before submitting the article to a journal. By that stage, you’ll have a much clearer understanding of the message you want to share with others.
  3. Ask someone who isn’t connected to your research to read your abstract. Check that they understand the information you are trying to convey, even if they’re not specialists in your field.
  4. When you submit your article to a journal, adhere to the journal’s guidelines about how abstracts should be written. Journals increasingly offer a format-free approach to submissions, allowing authors to lay out their article as they wish. However, if a journal still has strict guidelines, you should follow these.
  5. Some journals encourage authors to provide visual (sometimes called graphical) or video abstracts. Visual abstracts should supplement rather than replace a written abstract and can be a great way of engaging readers. They are outside the scope of this article, but these links provide useful guidance on creating effective visual and video abstracts.
  6. Next time you’re searching through published research, keep an eye out for abstracts that grab your attention and ask yourself: what appeals to me about this, and how can that help me improve the next abstract I need to write?

Following the tips in this article should grab the attention of the editors of your target journal and should help to make the most impact on your target readers. For more resources, visit our blog.

Michael Willis is a researcher advocate at Wiley.

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