How to Write a Good Abstract

An abstract is a summary of a piece of academic writing. The abstract appears in multiple locations, including at the start of a publication, in conference proceedings, and in electronic databases. Readers use the abstract to decide whether to read your paper or see your talk.

Features of a Good Abstract

  • Summarizes the entire paper (usually in one paragraph)
  • Usually ~150-300 words
  • Typically written in the past tense and mostly in the third person
  • Entirely new text (not cut and pasted from the paper)
  • Stands alone — the reader can understand the abstract on its own
  • Includes keywords; only includes critical references; usually does not include graphics
  • Has concise, clear, specific (not vague), carefully edited language
  • Understands the audience: what does the reader know?
  • Isn’t misleading; acknowledges when findings are preliminary

In science, the abstract should include a few sentences from each of the following sections:

  • Introduction: the goal of the study, crucial background
  • Methods: basic study design
  • Results: summary of major findings
  • Discussion: Interpretations, conclusions, broader implications, future research

This same format can apply to abstracts written for disciplines outside the sciences:

  • Introduction/Objective = Why do we care about the problem?
    • State of knowledge in the field
    • What gap is your research filling?
  • Method = What did you do to get to your argument?
    • Could involve analyzing literary works, completing a series of paintings, searching archives, comparing documents
  • Results = What is your argument?
    • A statement of the thesis
  • Discussion = What are the larger implications of your findings

Elissa Jacobs and Paige Eggebrecht