Have you ever sat frozen at the keyboard, facing the due date for your abstract and asking yourself how you can condense all of this information into 200 words or less? If this scenario resonates with you, rest assured you are not alone. There is a learning curve for writing an effective abstract, and thankfully there are also some tips that will help you get started and finish strong.
You have probably read abstracts in a variety of settings—in the results list of a PubMed search, at the beginning of a journal article, or in conference proceedings. The focus of this blog post is on preparing the abstract for your journal article. Let’s briefly consider the general purpose and layout of an article abstract, and then dive into the steps you can follow to painlessly prepare your abstract.
The Purpose of an Abstract
When you read an abstract, you expect it to be a stand-alone summary of the full article. You want it to inform you of the article’s main points and conclusions without requiring you to consult the full article. You have undoubtedly used an abstract to decide if you want to read the entire article. Think about what you expect to get from an abstract and you will have a good start on developing your own abstract-writing mindset.
The Layout of an Abstract
The first step in planning your abstract’s layout is ascertaining the specific requirements of the publication to which it will be submitted. While many publications use the same general layout, you must understand the specifics for your journal. For example, different publications have different length restrictions, key word guidelines, and clinical trial citation.
The general flow of information within an abstract moves from background, to methods, to results, and finally to conclusions. These sections may or may not be titled within an abstract, and publishers may use slightly different terms in their author guidelines, for example “introduction” instead of “background.” Just make sure you understand the journal expectations for this point. These informal sections typically contain the following information:
- The background section introduces the research topic, study purpose/rationale, question(s) being addressed, and novelty of the findings. Two sentences usually suffice for the background.
- The methods section describes how the study was conducted, including experimental design, data collection, and data analysis. Two to four sentences are typically needed to provide the reader with adequate detail.
- The results section describes the major experimental findings of the study. Include as much detail as possible within the constraints of the publisher guidelines.
TIP: Sometimes combining some of the words about methods with words about results in 1-2 sentences can save space.
Here's an example: "(Type of analysis) of (cellular phenomenon) in (cell type) using (experimental perturbation) in (assay) revealed (interesting findings about the phenomenon), suggesting (interpretation/hypothesis for next figure)."
· The conclusion section discusses how the study findings shed light on the original question(s) and fit into existing data on the topic. It can also include recommendations for further studies, though this is more commonly reserved for the main body. One to three sentences are usually adequate for the conclusion.
Please note that the numbers of sentences listed for each section are general guidelines. Again, make sure you understand the journal expectations.
Steps for Writing an Effective Abstract
Four basic steps will guide you through the abstract-writing process.
1. Getting Started
For some scientists it’s natural to write the abstract before writing the main body. Often the figures and figure legends are the first things completed, and some writers like to start the abstract next. Other scientists like to write the paper from the middle out, starting with the methods and results, then the intro and conclusions, leaving the abstract for last.
If you’re writing the abstract last, begin by reading through the body of your report. Ideally, you should allow a bit of a break between writing the body of the report and rereading it in preparation for writing the abstract. As you read, highlight the key information needed for each main part of the abstract. This approach can help to focus your writing on what crucial points you will emphasize when writing the main body of the paper.
If the bulk of the data in the paper have been presented in a poster or platform presentation (at a scientific meeting, for example) then you might use that abstract as a starting point. But remember to keep your audience in mind (see below), as this can change between the poster and the publication.
2. Write the Rough Draft
Write each part of the abstract using the information you highlighted. Do not merely copy and paste, but rather combine and blend the information into a concise bundle for each main part. Do not edit as you write! Simply get the information written—you will edit later.
As you write, keep in mind these key qualities your abstract should exhibit:
- The abstract should be a stand-alone summary of the study.
- The sequence of information should parallel that of the full report.
- The content should be coherent and concise.
- There should be logical connections between sections and information presented.
- The abstract should be written to the level of your intended audience and that of the publisher.
To the last point, you can usually find a description of the audience in the journal's Instructions to Authors. Is it a narrow audience of specialists, or a broad, multi-disciplinary audience? Is it a basic science, clinical, or translational audience? Tailoring your abstract appropriately will help maximize its impact. And as the peer reviewers should (in theory) be representative of the journal's audience, it may help your chances of publication too!
3. Reread and Revise the Rough Draft
Again, take a short break after finishing the rough draft, then reread and revise it. Work on each section individually, and then work on the overall flow and completeness of the abstract. Keep these points in mind as you read and revise:
- Compare the abstract to the publisher’s guidelines to ensure it meets the requirements for length, layout, and content.
- Remove unnecessary information and add important information that was initially left out.
- Make each sentence as concise as possible while maintaining clarity and completeness.
- Correct spelling and grammar mistakes.
- Check the full abstract for good flow and cohesiveness.
Take another short break after revising, then do a final read-through of your abstract.
4. Proofread the Final Abstract
You should always have someone proofread your final abstract. It could be a colleague or a friend that is a good writer. Some companies and university departments retain professional proofreaders to do a final check of manuscripts, so investigate your options.
This step-by-step process will help remove any angst you experience with the abstract-writing process. It will also ensure your abstract meets the publisher’s expectations and provides readers with the information they need.
Did you like this post? Check out another where we break down the process for Scientific Rebuttals.