Chapter 7: Writing Abstracts

Defining Abstracts

A recent handbook on academic writing defines abstract as “a short form, or synopsis, of a larger text or project, describing work that is proposed, in development, or completed”[1]. This definition underscores the chronology of an abstract’s use – future work, current work, or finished products. These varied uses of an abstract contribute to its diverse forms because what is included in an abstract is heavily influenced by its intended function. Basically, a good abstract should have the following features: accurate, self-contained, concise and specific, non-evaluative, and coherent and readable (American Psychological Association, 2001).Other scholars have defined abstracts in other ways, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • a description or factual summary of the much longer report, and is meant to give the reader an exact and concise knowledge of the full article[2]
  • an abbreviated, accurate representation of the contents of a document[3]

Still others have noted what an abstract should contain, including descriptors such as accurate, concise, non-evaluative, coherent and readable[4]by categorizing them into sub-types[5] or functional purposes[6]. Categories of abstracts include:

  1. Informative (summary of an article)
  2. Indicative/descriptive (explains general information but usually excludes results)
  3. Structured (summary that uses headings for each section of the RA)

As the first type (informative abstract) is the most common form of abstract[7], and the one most closely associated with the topic of this book (research articles), we will focus our attention on this type. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the third type (structured abstracts) could be a sub-classification for either the informative or indicative type. In other words, either type 1 or type 2 could be presented in a structured format.

So, now that we have narrowed down the type of abstract that we are referring to, let’s examine the purpose of that type. In their seminal book on academic writing, Swales and Feak (2009) note two major functions of this particular kind of abstract:

  • Previewing or summarizing academic work
  • Proposing academic work

That work may be a research article, a thesis or dissertation, a conference presentation, or a chapter of a book. In order to determine what is included in your abstract, you’ll need to first answer some wh-questions:

  • Who is the audience for the abstract and what is their level of expertise on the topic or within the discipline?
  • Why was the research undertaken (e.g., what is the motivation/justification for the study)?
  • What are the research questions or hypotheses?
  • What methods were used?
  • What were the general findings/conclusions?
  • What are the implications for the subject matter or field?
  • Where will the abstract be published?
  • How should the abstract be formatted?

A successful abstract answers these questions as a way of becoming a stand-alone document [8] .

Now that we’ve explored the basic definition of an abstract and explained what it contains, we’ll divide our discussion into two parts:

  1.  Functions of an abstract (examining the purposes and goals for writing one); and
  2. Forms of an abstract (emphasizing the various language issues that might arise as you’re writing).

  1. Curry, M. J., He, F., Weijia, L., Zhang, T., Zuo, Y., Altalouli, M., and Ayesh, J. (2021). An A to W of Academic Literacy: Key Concepts and Practices for Graduate Students.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  2. Bhatia, V. K. (1993). Analyzing genre: Language use in professional settings. London: Longman.
  3. ANSI. (1979). The American standard for writing abstracts. New York: ANSI Publication.
  4. American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American psychological association (6th ed.). https://www.
  5. Gladon, R. J., Graves, W. R., & Kelly, J. M. (2011). Getting published in the life sciences. John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: Essential tasks and skills (Vol. 1). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  7. Gladon, R. J., Graves, W. R., & Kelly, J. M. (2011). Getting published in the life sciences. John Wiley & Sons.
  8. Gladon, R. J., Graves, W. R., & Kelly, J. M. (2011). Getting published in the life sciences. John Wiley & Sons.


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