How to Write an Abstract

If you’re writing a paper for a journal, or presenting your work at a conference, you may be asked to write an abstract. But how do you go about it? Editor Ellie gives you a how to.

By Ellie King

When reading papers on your area of research, the abstract can be incredibly useful. As a summary of the work, it’s a great heads-up to let you know whether you should invest your time reading the whole article. But if you’re needing to write an abstract – for a research paper of your own or a conference presentation proposal – how do you go about it?

Step one: Write everything else first

The abstract should be the last thing you write. Because how can you summarise your work if you haven’t written it yet? So, even though the abstract is one of the first things you’re asked for when submitting research, leave it right to the end.

Step two: summarise each section

Once you have your main body of work, go through it and write a summary sentence for each section you’ve covered (as in, introduction, literature review, methods, results, discussion, conclusion). This sentence should say what the main crux of the section is. Broadly speaking, this would be:

  • Introduction: introduces the area of work
  • Literature review: highlights current scholarship and what gap/problem your research addresses
  • Methods: what you’ve done in your research – is it a desk study looking at primary sources? Or a study using participants?
  • Results: what did you find out?
  • Discussion: what is the significance of your results and how does it fit into the current research?
  • Conclusion: what further work does your research open up?

By writing a sentence for each section, you’ll have formed a first draft of your abstract. As the first sentence, summarise the whole paper and what it does. With a bit of tidying up and editing, it should now be a neat summary of everything in your work. Try and read it as if you were a student deciding whether to read the whole paper as part of your literature review – does this abstract give you all the information you need to decide whether to read on?

Abstracts are usually 100-150 words, so you may need to do some cutting down of your summaries. If this is the case, you may be able to significantly minimise the literature review summary or the methods element. The key pieces of information to include are the problem your research address, your results, and the significance of them.

Step three: Weave in keywords

This was a nifty trick my supervisor taught me. Often journals only allow you to have minimal keywords tagged in your published paper, but the title and abstract can boost that number. Again, this about this from a reader’s perspective: what possible things would someone search that is related to your paper? Their search terms may be very tenuous or general, but its important to make your work visible to as many people as possible. Make sure you weave these terms into your abstract or title so it’s picked up in search engines.

An example

To help demonstrate this, here’s an abstract from my most recent paper. It’s split into each summary sentence, and key words are in bold.

Title: Creating Meaningful Museums: A Model for Museum Exhibition User Experience

Summary of paper: Combining existing sector knowledge of museum exhibition visitor experience with concepts of User Experience, a model for Museum Exhibition User Experience (MEUX) is presented.

Development: The model was developed from existing literature and research interviews with UK museum professionals and presents the museum exhibition experience from both the museum and visitor perspectives.

Methods: The MEUX model was tested through an online survey of UK museum professionals and through a visitor questionnaire at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Results: Results demonstrate a disconnect between museum and visitor preferences on motivations for visiting and what outcomes emerge from museum visits.

Discussion: The adoption of a User Experience model such as MEUX into museum practice enables holistic conceptualisation of the visitor experience, through the pragmatic and hedonic qualities of an exhibition. This methodology accurately captures institution and visitor preferences and can evaluate how the development decisions of museums influence and impact the visitor experience.

Header image: Patrick Fore

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