How to write informative abstracts

Abstracts are often the least considered but most important part of any paper. Most readers of a journal will read most of the abstracts, but very few will read the full papers. Perhaps 95% of readers will read only the abstract. The need for abstracts to be terse often causes difficulty and can taint what is otherwise a perfectly acceptable paper. Problems with abstracts continue to recur. The aim of this post is to overcome the worst of them. Some of this guidance is based upon accepted good practice in abstract writing, other aspects are simply a question of style or consistency. These suggestions should help authors to write consistently good abstracts. The purpose of a good abstract is to be informative about the whole content of a paper.

The abstract should not be a table of contents in prose, neither should it be an introduction. It should tell the reader what the research was about, how it was undertaken and what was discovered, but not how the paper is organized. The main findings must be summarized. If there are too many of them, then simply exemplify them in the abstract. The essential elements of the abstract are:

  • Background: A simple opening sentence or two placing the work in context.
  • Aims: One or two sentences giving the purpose of the work.
  • Method(s): One or two sentences explaining what was done.
  • Results: One or two sentences indicating the main findings.
  • Conclusions: One sentence giving the most important consequence of the work.

The following guidelines have been extracted from recent criticisms of real abstracts.  This may help to overcome some of the most frequent problems:

  • Do not commence with “this paper…”, “this report…” or similar. It is better to write about the research than about the paper. Similarly, do not explain the sections or parts of the paper.
  • Avoid sentences that end in “…is described”, “…is reported”, “…is analysed” or similar. These are simply too vague to be informative.
  • Do not begin sentences with “it is suggested that…”, “it is believed that…”, “it is felt that…” or similar. In every case, the four words can be omitted without damaging the essential message.
  • It is generally accepted practice to write in the passive voice. However, there are some clumsy mechanisms that are often used to avoid the active voice and these tend to produce very poor English. Thus, it is often better to write “I” or “we”, especially when you are writing about your agency in the research, particularly the empirical work. The worst thing from a stylistic point of view is to refer to yourself as “the author”, “the writer” and so on. When you are writing about the problem, the literature, the methods and so on, perhaps passive voice is the better option since those sections would usually be about the research, not about the act of writing. There are no fixed rules about first person, third person, active or passive voice (also see There is no substitute for making an intelligent choice.
  • Avoid making it seem as if the research undertook itself. Thus, instead of “The study examines the problem…”, write “The problem is examined…”.  However, such statements are rather obvious and bland. It would be better to summarize what the problem was!

Finally, here is a spoof abstract which contains some of the worst practices in abstract writing and singularly fails to convey any information about the paper. This shows just how uninformative the common mistakes might become:

This paper discusses research which was undertaken in the author’s country. A theoretical framework is developed from a literature search and this is used by the authors as the basis of an analytical model. The researchers collected data within this framework and analysed it according to the precepts laid down by earlier researchers in the field. The data is used to demonstrate that our understanding can be significantly increased and this is discussed in the light of previous work. Conclusions are drawn and it is shown that these may be useful for practitioners.

About Will

Professor of Construction Management and Economics, University of Reading, UK. Editor-in-Chief, Construction Management and Economics (1992-2016). Programme Director, MSc Construction Management. School Director of Postgraduate Teaching Programmes.
This entry was posted in Editorial policies, Guidance, Style, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How to write informative abstracts

  1. Coleen Jaftha says:

    Thanks Will. This is very useful and clear guidance on how to write an abstract. I have referred to this text.. with slight modifications.. when guiding students through this type of writing.. I call it “The flop-proof method of writing an abstract”.

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