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To Sum Up. . .

How to write a good Abstract

· Writing tips

The Abstract is the home page for your manuscript. It's the only thing that many of your readers will pay attention to, so it's worth doing right. In this post, I explain how to write an Abstract that gives your manuscript the good impression it deserves.

The content

The Abstract summarizes your entire research paper. It should clearly explain:

  • The rationale behind the study
  • The research question
  • How the study was performed
  • What the main findings were
  • What the findings mean

That’s a lot of information to cram into one paragraph. Let’s talk about how to fit it all in.

Stick to the point

There is no room in the Abstract for unnecessary details. You need to deal with each of the points outlined above in two or three sentences.

Start by telling your reader why your study is important. This is not the time for a lengthy literature review. Your job here is to say what gap exists in the current knowledge and how your study will help.

Next, clearly state your research question. This question is the focus of your study and should be answered in your manuscript.

In the next few sentences, explain your experimental approach so that your reader understands what you did. Keep it brief – if you find yourself listing buffer ingredients and giving incubation times, you have gone too far.

Now we come to the most important part of your Abstract – describing your findings. Stick to the main results and explain how they answer your research question. Avoid vague expressions: ‘one-year patient survival was significantly different between the two groups’ does not tell the reader much. Be specific: ‘one-year patient survival was higher in the treatment group than the placebo group (74% vs. 23%)’ is far more informative.

In the last few sentences, say what your conclusions are. Try to finish with a strong sentence that emphasizes what your study brings to the field. This will leave your reader with a lasting positive impression of your work.

What not to do

Here are some common mistakes to avoid when writing your Abstract:

  • Writing the Abstract first. It may be the first section of your research paper, but it makes no sense to write the Abstract before the core elements of your manuscript have been constructed. The Abstract should be the last thing you write, when your hypotheses, findings, ideas, and conclusions are well established. Only then can your Abstract clearly convey the core elements of your manuscript.
  • Failing to follow the author guidelines. Different journals have different Abstract guidelines; some accept longer Abstracts, while others expect you to summarize everything in fewer than 200 words. There are also different ways to structure your Abstract; some journals ask for a continuous paragraph and others expect a structured Abstract that is divided into different sections, (commonly Background, Aims, Methods, Results, and Conclusions). Failing to comply with journal guidelines may result in rejection.
  • Putting information in the Abstract that is not in the manuscript. In most cases, this happens because the author did not write the Abstract last. Remember that the Abstract is a summary of your research paper. Its job is to condense the core information from your manuscript, not to provide new information.
  • Copying chunks of text from the manuscript. The sentences in your main manuscript are likely to contain more detail than the Abstract allows. Focus on the topic sentences and concluding sentences in your main text; these contain the core information.
  • Citing references. After reading the Abstract, the reader should be able to understand what you did without reference to the literature. Most journals ask for references to be excluded from the Abstract – so leave them out.
  • Using abbreviations. Your reader will understand your Abstract better if you avoid unfamiliar abbreviations. This is why most journals discourage abbreviations in the Abstract. Wherever possible, use the full terms.

Get the gist?

The Abstract is the most important section of your manuscript. The tips outlined in this article will help you to write an Abstract that grabs your readers’ attention and leaves a lasting good impression.

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Get your message across with a focused Abstract

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.