Your abstract is the most important piece of your article. In this post, I'm giving you a recipe for writing an abstract that'll make your paper more likely to get accepted. You'll also get your hands on my free Word template so that you'll have the instructions handy the next time you write a paper or conference abstract.
Take a few seconds and think how you read other people's papers. Let me guess... You first read the title and then you read the abstract, right? This means the abstract is the second impression you will make on your editor and peer-reviewers. Therefore, it's worthwhile to tweak the abstract until it is, oh yes, perfect.
So, what would you like to know when you read another researcher's abstract? Probably you would either like to know whether the paper reports a specific finding or you are just generally curious what the paper is about. This is why a paper abstract should make sense even if you don't read the full paper. It should be a summary of your paper.
I'm probably not going to surprise you much if I say that the best abstracts tell a story. When I work with my clients' papers I use my "Story Method" to make sure that their papers are well structured and easy to read. Having a narrative in your paper also evokes curiosity in your readers. That's not all. By giving your reader literally the whole story - that is, the context, the problem, the solution, and the implications -, they are more likely to remember your study.
The Abstract Recipe
So, how do we get a story into your abstract? You're going to like this: I'm giving you a recipe that I use in my teaching and client work. The basis for the recipe is an annotated example from the journal Nature, which I adapted a little to make it applicable to most journals. (Exceptions are those that predefine the abstract structure.) I've also added some more detail.
This is how you write the perfect abstract for your paper in six steps:
1. Context to your study topic
The first one or two sentences create the setting and provide an introduction to the topic of your study. As a rule of thumb, every reader of the journal should understand this first part of your abstract. This means that for a journal with a broad readership the introduction is ideally quite general. Use the present tense.
2. Context to your particular study
You can use the next one or two sentences to delve deeper into the introduction of your study. Give all the background that your reader will need to understand what context your study is situated in. This is in present tense too.
3. The Problem you Solve
Now it’s time to introduce some tension: State the problem in the state-of-the-art that your study addresses in one sentence. Here it's important to be as specific as possible. Present tense for this one too.
4. Your main message
Then you summarise your main message starting with phrases such as “Here, we show”, "In this article, we demonstrate" or similar. Ideally, this sentence is the exact answer to the problem stated in 3. Still present tense.
5. Your results
It's finally time to talk about your findings in two or three sentences. Here it is important to focus on the most important results. Don't make the mistake of describing several results in each sentence. When it comes to the methods you used, only mention them if they are central to the main message you described in 4. Write these sentences in the past tense.
6. The broad perspective
In the last one or two sentences, you put your results in a broader perspective. Explain why your findings are significant and what impact your findings are likely or possibly going to make in your field of research or for an application – be as specific as possible here. Use the present and/or future tense here.
Done! Your abstract now makes sense on its own, presents a perfect summary of your paper and tells a story. By the way, this recipe totally works for both paper and conference abstracts.
FREE template for your abstract
If you would like to have these instructions available whenever you next need to write an abstract you can download my Word Abstract Template FOR FREE by clicking on the image below:
About the Author:
I’m Dr Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.