What is an Abstract in Writing?

Written by Rebecca Turley

what is an abstract in writing

What is an abstract in writing? An abstract in writing is a short paragraph of information that provides readers with a clear overview and understanding of what to expect from a larger scholarly or academic piece.

An abstract highlights the essential theme of the work and provides enough detail to allow the reader to make an informed judgment about the work’s purpose or theme and whether it’s worthy of a full read.

An abstract should provide a high-level overview of the piece but also provide enough detail to allow the reader to determine its purpose. Consider it a condensed nugget of very useful information that provides the reader with a clear idea of what to expect from the longer piece.

An abstract should pack a punch. It should be powerful, clear, and concise, and it should provide enough valuable information in a tightly worded paragraph. No extraneous information, no unnecessary details, no beating around the bush.

Why Writing an Abstract Is Good For the Writer and the Reader 

happy readerIf you’ve just worked your way through a long-winded, in-depth, excruciatingly long scholarly paper or article, the idea of writing an abstract may not sound too appealing. But an abstract in writing is always worth your time. After all, its sole purpose is to get your longer piece in front of more readers. An abstract ensures that all that hard work and time you put into writing your paper or article won’t be all for naught and that more readers will benefit from your piece.

An abstract in writing serves two, main purposes:

Provides the reader with a good idea of what the work is about

Academic and scholarly works usually run on the long side, so an abstract provides the reader with a quick read that allows them determine if they want to dive into the complete piece. Abstracts do a better job of providing the key points of the piece than skimming the article would, so a good abstract can help you get more eyes on the associated work.

Help readers find it through online database searches

Many online catalogs for libraries and scholarly journals utilize indexing to make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for. Users of these databases are able to perform abstract searches instead of full-text searches to better narrow their search results. Therefore, it’s important to write an abstract using applicable keywords and phrases that users will likely use when searching.

Specificity is key here. If you use broad keywords and phrases, your piece will not likely reach the intended readers’ eyes. For example, if you write a piece about the long-term effects of climate change on the global water supply, using the keyword phrase “climate change” or “water shortage” will likely yield countless results in an online search. But adding more detail using phrases and terms found in your longer piece like “global water scarcity,” “unpredictable water supply,” and “water stress on global water supply” will allow your abstract to appear at the top of the search results for a reader interested in your topic.

What an Abstract Is, What It Isn’t, and What Every Good Abstract Should Contain

You may be called on to write an abstract for a number of reasons:

An abstract is a solid breakdown and clear explanation about what to expect from a larger work. There are a number of characteristics of an abstract in writing:

Types of Abstracts: Which One To Use and When

There are two, main types of abstracts:

Descriptive. A descriptive abstract provides the user with an overview of what is found in the work. A descriptive abstract is usually 100 words or less and is largely used to describe the purpose and scope of the work.

Informative. Most abstracts are informative. This type of abstract is more in-depth and features all of the main points of the piece and the key results or evidence discussed. Like the descriptive abstract, it contains the purpose of the piece and its scope. But it goes one step further and provides the results how the results affect or build on the body of knowledge that already exists.

In general, a publisher will dictate what type of abstract you’ll write and the maximum length of the abstract.

Make Quick Work of Writing an Abstract with Reverse Outlining

reverse outliningIt may seem like a rather daunting task to condense your long work into a succinct paragraph. But there’s a trick to writing an abstract that’ll make quick work out of this final part of your project: reverse outlining.

Reverse outlining is a pretty simple process that includes writing down your thesis statement along with the main topic or idea of each paragraph. Once you have the key points of your work in front of you, it becomes much easier to revise and organize them into a clear, informative paragraph of information. Remember that your abstract must be original, so avoid copying and pasting sentences or passages. Instead, write down the general topic and rewrite them into new and interesting sentences.

After writing the abstract, review it several times, deleting all extraneous words and unnecessary details.

Let’s Get Started: Writing the Abstract

While some journals still allow writers to submit abstracts that are more freeform, in general, you’ll find that most scholarly journals will ask for a more formal structure and a specific word count.

Most abstracts are written in a clear, straightforward fashion that includes:

Once you’ve written your abstract, ask yourself the following questions:

If the abstract can answer these questions, you’ve likely achieved your objective of writing a comprehensive, well-organized abstract.

While the above structure is best used for scientific abstracts, a humanities abstract is usually better organized into three sections: (1) thesis; (2) background; and (3) conclusion.

Some important points to remember when writing your abstract: