An abstract is a brief overview of a research paper, thesis, or other lengthy academic work summarized in one paragraph. As a rule, it consists of 150 to 250 words (about 6-7 sentences), with some rarer types of abstracts taking up to 500 words.
The purpose of an abstract is to give the gist of your paper to potential readers – usually fellow researchers. The reader should get enough information from the abstract to decide whether they need to read the entire article. Think of it as a book summary, only more formal.
In this post, we will give you tips on how to write a good abstract, which mistakes to avoid, and what are some differences between APA and MLA abstract writing.
Writing an Abstract: Best Practices and Helpful Tips
Writing an abstract is one of the most challenging tasks for a student. Compressing your entire paper into six sentences seems impossible! Moreover, you have already summarized your research twice in the introduction and in the conclusion. Now you need to do all it again? Frustrating, I know. However, knowing how to write an effective abstract for a research paper is almost as important as designing research, analyzing data, and presenting findings.
When done right, your abstract ensures that your paper will find its readers, inform further research, and help your colleagues working in the same field. Here are some guidelines to follow that will make your abstract informative and concise:
Write it last
Although your abstract precedes your research paper, it's an account of both the complete study and the finished write-up. Therefore, it should be the very last thing written before you publish your paper. Better still, it's a good idea to step back from your writing for a few days before you start outlining the abstract. This distance will make a general overview easier.
Choose the abstract type
Before you start writing, determine which of the four abstract types is most appropriate for your paper:
This is the most common type of abstract striving to represent the paper in its fullness. It should provide all the main evidence, key findings of the study, and the author's recommendations. Usually, informative abstracts are about 300 words long. This is the summary of your work.
This is the most concise type of abstract that doesn't give any results or conclusions – only the purpose, methods, and the scope of the research, along with some keywords. Descriptive abstracts are no more than 100 words in length. This is only a brief preview of the study.
This is the most detailed abstract type. Along with purpose, methods, and findings, it also provides interpretive commentary about the study's validity, completeness, and accuracy. Critical abstracts occur rarely and can reach up to 500 words in length. Critical abstracts can be compared to a review.
A highlight abstract is akin to a book blurb. Its purpose is to tease the study to the readers and spark their interest. Being incomplete and sometimes leading, such an abstract cannot stand as a surrogate for the paper and is rarely seen in academia.
Follow the prescribed sequence
Being a formal representation of your paper, your abstract should follow its structure. Readers will expect to find in it:
- - purpose of your study
- - research problems
- - methods applied
- - major findings
- - a brief summary of findings interpretation
To achieve this, summarize each chapter of your paper in one sentence or just lift key sentences directly from your text and put them in sequence. Then, read and edit the resulting paragraph for clarity and consistency. Get rid of repetitive information, filler words, unnecessary adjectives, and adverbs. Add connecting phrases for natural flow.
Write in complete sentences
With a snug word limit and a vast scope, it can be tempting to economize. However, although short and concise, all sentences in your abstract should be complete and clear. Avoid fragments and ellipses.
Drop jargon and abbreviations
Make sure your abstract is accessible to as many researchers as possible. It is not a cryptic note for those in the know but a clear label indicating what's inside. Spell out all abbreviations, and try to choose words that are familiar to a general audience. If you aren't sure, ask a colleague or a friend if your abstract is comprehensible enough.
To serve as an effective label for your paper, your abstract must be visible. To make your abstract and, by extension, your study easy to find, use keywords that describe the contents. You can put them as a stand-alone section under the main abstract paragraph. However, it also would be beneficial to use terms that your colleagues will most likely use to find information on a subject within the abstract itself. This way, you will make sure that your abstract is visible to automated search engines and takes the right place in the cataloging systems of scholarly resources.
Read other abstracts
Of course, when it comes to learning how to write an abstract for a research paper, examples are invaluable. Read research paper abstracts in your field. If you have time, read articles as well – to see both an extended account of research and its compressed representation.
DO NOT INCLUDE in an abstract:
- - Excessive background information
- - Superfluous details
- - Citations, source references, and literature discussion
- - New information that is absent from the main body of your paper
- - Illustration, tables, graphs, etc., or any references to them.
How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper APA
Each field of knowledge has its own rules and approved practices of abstract writing. Here, we will describe how to write a research paper abstract in APA. However, your professor or your university writing center might have specific requirements. They should take precedents over any of the recommendations given here.
- - Place your abstract on a new page right after the title page; use one-inch margins.
- - On the first line, write "Abstract" (bold, no quotation marks).
- - The entire abstract should be formatted as one paragraph, with no bullet points or indentations, double-spaced, about 250 words long.
- - At the very minimum, include the topic, main questions posed, methods used, results obtained, and conclusions drawn during your research. Give statistical findings in parentheses.
- - Additionally, you may include the implications of your research and suggestions for further studies.
- - Under the paragraph, provide the list of helpful keywords describing your research for fellow researchers and database algorithms. The word
keywords should be italicized, the keywords themselves not. For example:
Keywords: trauma, PTSD, coping mechanisms, repression.
How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper MLA
MLA generally has the same recommendations as to the contents and structure of abstracts as the APA, with slight differences in formatting:
- - Use one-inch margins and double spacing.
- - Write the entire abstract as a single paragraph, indenting only the first line ½ inch from the left margin. Restrict your abstract to 250 words for the informative type or 100 for the descriptive one.
- - Include research methods, main findings, and more significant implications in a condensed form.
- - Do not include footnotes or citations.
- - Italicize titles instead of using quotation marks.
- - Spell out all acronyms.
- - Use present tense for any statements of general fact and to present findings and interpretations of your study. For example: "Food insecurity is a pressing problem among low-income students. Our study demonstrates the extent to which it adversely affects their wellbeing and academic achievements."
- - Use past tense to discuss any prior research and to present the actual results of your study. For example: "Aseel El Zein et al. studied this problem in eight US universities" or "Four out of ten students reported disordered eating behaviors."
As you can see, writing an abstract is very straightforward. The trick is to find the succinct expressions to compress the most meaning in the fewest words. This exercise may take a lot of time. Don't worry. It's not uncommon to spend more time writing a 250-word abstract than you usually spend on several pages. On the bright side, it's a capstone that finishes your long work, so this challenge is a rewarding one.