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 style of writing. Since deciding to improve the general standards of abstracts in Construction Management and Economics, we have found that certain problems recur. We seek to deal with most of them here. Some are based upon accepted good practice in abstract writing, others are simply a question of style or consistency. The following suggestions should help to reduce the need for authors to re-write their abstracts.

The abstract should not be a table of contents in prose, neither should it be an introduction. It should be informative. 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 just 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.
  • Do not write in the first person in any form. Thus, not only should you avoid “I”, but also “we”, “the author”, “the writer” and so on. Again, this is because the abstract should be about the research, not about the act of writing.
  • Avoid making it seem as if the research undertook itself. Thus, instead of “The study examines the problem…”, write “The problem is examined…”.

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 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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