Writing the abstract

Perhaps the abstract was once a brief summary of the full paper. That is now largely history. In these days of the information explosion the abstract’s purpose is to let the reader know whether they want to spend the time reading your whole paper – which may possibly involve them in the hassle of downloading it and even fighting a paywall.

So there are two aspects: you want to make it inviting: you want the right peer group to read and heed it, and in some cases you want the conference organisers to select it for a talk or poster. `But you also need to inform those who wouldn’t find it relevant that they’d be wasting their time going further.

So it is not a summary. It is not a precis. It does not have to cover everything in your paper. You cannot assume the potential reader (who is probably scrolling down a long list of many such abstracts) will read your abstract all the way through: they will take a glance at the first couple of lines and only read further if you’ve caught their attention.

After writing and reading (and not reading) many abstracts, I have come to rely on the 4 sentence system. It gives a sure-fire mechanism for producing high quality abstracts, it does not involve any staring at a blank sheet of paper waiting for inspiration, and it is also flexible. It works for experimental and theoretical papers, and for simulations. It is good for the reader and the author.

The 4 Sentence Abstract

  1. What you did. This is the opening which will catch the reader’s eye and their attention. Keep it short and specific. Don’t mention your methodology. “We describe the 4 sentence system for writing an abstract.”
  2. Why this is important. This is why you chose to work on this topic, way back when. The core specialist readers will know this, of course, but will be happy to have their views confirmed and reinforced: for those in the field but not quite so specialised it may be necessary to justify the work you’ve done. “Many authors find it difficult to write their abstract, and many paper abstracts are long and unhelpful.”
  3. How your result improves on previous ones. This is your chance to big-up what you’ve done. You have more data, or better apparatus, or a superior technique, or whatever. Now you can mention your methodology, insofar as it’s an improvement on previous work. “Our technique provides an easy-to-use methodical system.”
  4. Give the result. If possible, the actual result, particularly if it’s a relatively straightforward measurement. If (but only if) you are submitting an abstract to a future conference and you havn’t actually got your results yet, you may have to paraphrase this as “Results for … are given.” People using it spend less time writing, and the abstracts they produce are better.”

This is a starting framework which can be adapted. The 4 “sentences” can be split if necessary, their relative length and emphasis varied according to the paper they describe. But it fits pretty much every situation, and it gives a thematic organisation which matches the potential reader’s expectation. (You can write it in the first or third person, active or passive, depending on your preferences and the tradition of your field, provided you’re consistent.)

There is a lot of advice about abstracts around on the web. Many of them are, to my mind, unhelpful in that they see the abstract through the eyes of the author, as a summary based on the paper, rather than through the eyes of a potential reader. I’ve taken to using the 4 sentences: what we did, why it matters, how it’s better, and the result. I now find writing abstracts quick and straightforward, and the results are pretty good.