I’ve been reading a lot of abstracts lately, and thinking about what makes a good one. So here are my thoughts, for those times when you’re unexpectedly in need of an abstract!
This year I’m a judge on the Classics and Archaeology Panel for the Undergraduate Awards. As part of the judging process we look at the abstracts that people have written to accompany their essays. Now, I’ve seen some great abstracts over the last couple of weeks, but in general it’s apparent that people don’t know what to do with an abstract. They write a few lines as an afterthought, or more often they simply copy and paste their introduction. So let me address both of those mistakes, to show you why an abstract is important, and why it’s not an introduction.
You should always make good use of the opportunity to provide an abstract. The abstract is the public face of your work – your advert, if you like, for your own research. It’s the first bit of your writing that your readers will see: and if it’s not good enough, it will be the only bit they’ll see, because they won’t bother with the rest! Essentially it’s rhetoric: you’re persuading people to read on.
So what are you supposed to do, and how can you do it well enough to hook a reader?
One crucial element of the answer is that the abstract is different from an introduction. It should be catchier: just ask yourself, ‘What would Cicero write?’. It should be a standalone piece of writing. It’s the classic ‘elevator pitch’: the way you’d sum up your research to someone if you were sharing a lift with them for thirty seconds. An abstract should usually be between 100 and 300 words, and doesn’t usually contain references: so it can be more powerful than normal academic writing.
It should also go further than your introduction. These are the things you’re usually advised to include:
In other words you’re telling the story of your developing research; you set out the context of your main interest and (crucially) the gap that it is going to fill; and you cover the purpose of the work (what does it set out to achieve?). These are all things that you might do in your introduction. But in your abstract you also need to outline your methods: what approach have you chosen? This is important: people might choose to read your work because they want to use similar methods in a different context, so you need to see your methodology as a selling point in your elevator pitch.
You also need to anticipate your conclusion. Many people don’t do that, because it’s not something you would usually do in an introduction – but of course (as I may have mentioned!) this isn’t an introduction. Don’t worry about giving away the ending: frankly, your research is unlikely to contain a great deal of dramatic tension anyway! Tell the reader what you’ve found out: if they find it interesting, they’ll read the full article to see how your research justifies your conclusion.
There aren’t a lot of occasions at undergraduate level when you need to write an abstract. You’re likely to need one if you pursue undergraduate publication or submit an essay to the Undergraduate Awards; but apart from those, it tends to be seen as a higher-level requirement, for MA study and beyond. However, if you can get into the habit of writing a rough abstract, for your eyes only, for every essay (yes, I know, it’s a crazy idea!), you’ll see how the act of writing an abstract forces you to sharpen up your thinking about how your goals, methods and conclusions connect.
Abstracts are a big part of academic life; but for the most part, writing an abstract is a skill that is not taught. Scholars even at the top levels of academia are often dreadful at writing abstracts. It’s a startling omission in research and skills training, but it’s one that you can exploit by developing the ‘elevator pitch’ as a skill that sets your work apart. Keep in mind that when people get out of that metaphorical lift, they should be interested in finding out more about you. If they’re bored or confused when the doors open, you’ve lost that audience forever.
Abstracts: the art of being fun in a lift. Remember that definition and you won’t go far wrong!
(And here’s a detailed discussion of the ideal [arguably!] composition of an abstract, from the LSE Blog.)
Cora Beth Knowles