These materials were made possible thanks to the generous support from the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest Committee.
On this page, the UW-Madison Writing Center Writer's Handbook offers advice on writing abstracts and answers questions such as: including:
On the "Abstracts: Examples" page, you will also find sample Undergraduate Symposium abstracts from a variety of disciplines.
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a concise summary of a larger project (a thesis, research report, performance, service project, etc.) that concisely describes the content and scope of the project and identifies the project’s objective, its methodology and its findings, conclusions, or intended results.
Remember that your abstract is a description of your project (what you specifically are doing) and not a description of your topic (whatever you’re doing the project on). It is easy to get these two types of description confused. Since abstracts are generally very short, it’s important that you don’t get bogged down in a summary of the entire background of your topic.
As you are writing your abstract, stop at the end of every sentence and make sure you are summarizing the project you have undertaken rather than the more general topic.
Do abstracts vary by discipline (science, humanities, service, art, or performance)?
Abstracts do vary from discipline to discipline, and sometimes within disciplines.
Abstracts in the hard sciences and social sciences often put more emphasis on methods than do abstracts in the humanities; humanities abstracts often spend much more time explaining their objective than science abstracts do.
However, even within single disciplines, abstracts often differ. Check with a professor to find out about the expectations for an abstract in your discipline, and make sure to ask for examples of abstracts from your field.
What should an abstract include?
Despite the fact that abstracts vary somewhat from discipline to discipline, every abstract should include four main types of information.
What should my Objective/Rationale section look like?
What is the problem or main issue? Why did you want to do this project in the first place?
The first few sentences of your abstract should state the problem you set out to solve or the issue you set out to explore and explain your rationale or motivation for pursuing the project. The problem or issue might be a research question, a gap in critical attention to a text, a societal concern, etc. The purpose of your study is to solve this problem and/or add to your discipline’s understanding of the issue.
Some authors state their thesis or hypothesis in this section of the abstract; others choose to leave it for the “Conclusions” section.
What should my Methods section look like?
What did you do?
This section of the abstract should explain how you went about solving the problem or exploring the issue you identified as your main objective.
For a hard science or social science research project, this section should include a concise description of the process by which you conducted your research. Similarly, for a service project, it should outline the kinds of service you performed and/or the process you followed to perform this service. For a humanities project, it should make note of any theoretical framework or methodological assumptions. For a visual or performing arts project, it should outline the media you employed and the process you used to develop your project.
What should my Results/Intended Results section look like?
What did you find?
This section of the abstract should list the results or outcomes of the work you have done so far. If your project is not yet complete, you may still want to include preliminary results or your hypotheses about what those results will be.
What should my Conclusion section look like?
What did you learn?
The abstract should close with a statement of the project’s implications and contributions to its field. It should convince readers that the project is interesting, valuable, and worth investigating further. In the particular case of the Undergraduate Symposium, it should convince readers to attend your presentation.
How should I choose my title?
You probably already have some idea for a title for your project. Consider your audience; for most projects, it is best to choose a title that is comprehensible to an audience of intelligent non-specialists.
Avoid jargon; instead, make sure that you choose terms that will be clear to a wide audience.
What my project isn't finished? What if my results didn’t turn the way I expected?
More often than not, projects are not completely finished by the time presenters need to submit their abstracts. Your abstract doesn’t need to include final results (though if you have them, by all means include them!).
If you don’t yet have final results, you can either include any preliminary results that you do have, or you can briefly mention the results that you expect to obtain.
Similarly, unexpected or negative results occur often. They can still be useful and informative, and you should include them in your abstract. Talk with your mentor to discuss how such results are normally handled in your discipline.
In any case, whether you have complete, partial, projected, or unexpected results, keep in mind that your explanation of those results – their significance – is more important than the raw results themselves.
How can I fit all of this into just 125 words?
Bestraightforward. Don’t worry about making your abstract “flow”. Don’t worry about writing a long or elaborate introduction or conclusion, and as we suggested above, don’t include too much background information on your project’s general topic. Instead, focus on what you have done and will do as you finish your project by providing the information we have suggested above.
If your abstract is still too long, look for unnecessary adjectives or other modifiers that do not directly contribute to a reader’s understanding of your project. Look for places where you repeat yourself, and cut out all unnecessary information.
How should I start writing my abstract?
Re-examine the work you have done so far (whether it is your entire project or a portion of it). Look specifically for your objectives, methods, results, and conclusions.
After re-examining your work, write a rough draft without looking back at the materials you’re abstracting. This will help you make sure you are condensing the ideas into abstract form rather than simply cutting and pasting sentences that contain too much or too little information.
Bring your draft to the Writing Center to get feedback from a writing instructor. Call 263-1992 to make an appointment.
What stylistic techniques will make my abstract most effective?
Avoid jargon. Jargon is the specialized, technical vocabulary that is used for communicating within a specific field. Jargon is not effective for communicating ideas to a broader, less specialized audience such as the Undergraduate Symposium audience.
Discipline-specific sentence: Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter.
Revised for a more general audience: We will fight on the beaches.
Discipline-specific sentence: Geographical and cultural factors function to spatially confine growth to specific regions for long periods of time.
Revised for a more general audience: Geographical and cultural factors limit long-term economic growth to regions that are already prosperous.
Discipline-specific sentence: The implementation of statute-mandated regulated inputs exceeds the conceptualization of the administrative technicians.
Revised for a more general audience: The employees are having difficulty mastering the new regulations required by the law.
(Examples excerpted from Lantham, Richard. Revising Prose; McCloskey, Donald N. The Writing of Economics; and Scott, Gregory M. and Garrison, Stephen M., The Political Science Student Writer’s Manual.)
Be concise. Don’t use three words where you can communicate the same idea in one. Don’t repeat information or go into too much detail. Don’t just cut and paste sentences from your research paper into your abstract; writing that is appropriate for long papers is often too complicated for abstracts. Read more about general principles of writing clear, concise sentences.
Useshort, direct sentences. Vary your sentence structure to avoid choppiness. Read your abstract aloud, or ask someone else to read it aloud to you, to see if the abstract is appropriately fluid or too choppy.
Usepast tense when describing what you have already done.
Check with a professor in your field to determine whether active or passive voice is more appropriate for your discipline. Read more about active and passive voice.
Don’t cite sources, figures, or tables, and don’t include long quotations. This type of material takes up too much space and distracts from the overall scope of your project.
What kind of feedback should I seek to make sure my abstract is effective?
Work with a professor or another student in your field throughout the entire process of writing your abstract. People familiar with work in your field will be able to help you see where you need to say more and where you need to say less and will be able to help with clarity and precision as well.
Bring your draft to the Writing Center to get feedback from a writing instructor. Call 263-1992 to set up an appointment.
Finally, ask someone you know (a roommate, friend, or family member) who specializes in a different field to read your abstract and point out any confusing points. If you can make your abstract understandable to an intelligent non-specialist, you’ve probably made it effective for the audience of a standard conference or symposium.
Continue reading for examples of abstracts from many disciplines.
(Works Consulted: LEO Writing Abstracts, ©1995, ‘96, ‘97, ’98 The Write Place; Writer’s Workshop, University of Illinois, Urbana, adapted by Kitty O. Locker, 1997.)
I. Types of Abstracts
To begin, you need to determine which type of abstract you should include with your paper. There are four general types.
A critical abstract provides, in addition to describing main findings and information, a judgement or comment about the study’s validity, reliability, or completeness. The researcher evaluates the paper and often compares it with other works on the same subject. Critical abstracts are generally 400-500 words in length due to the additional interpretive commentary. These types of abstracts are used infrequently.
A descriptive abstract indicates the type of information found in the work. It makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. It does incorporate key words found in the text and may include the purpose, methods, and scope of the research. Essentially, the descriptive abstract only describes the work being summarized. Some researchers consider it an outline of the work, rather than a summary. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short, 100 words or less.
The majority of abstracts are informative. While they still do not critique or evaluate a work, they do more than describe it. A good informative abstract acts as a surrogate for the work itself. That is, the researcher presents and explains all the main arguments and the important results and evidence in the paper. An informative abstract includes the information that can be found in a descriptive abstract [purpose, methods, scope] but it also includes the results and conclusions of the research and the recommendations of the author. The length varies according to discipline, but an informative abstract is usually no more than 300 words in length.
A highlight abstract is specifcally written to attract the reader’s attention to the study. No pretence is made of there being either a balanced or complete picture of the paper and, in fact, incomplete and leading remarks may be used to spark the reader’s interest. In that a highlight abstract cannot stand independent of its associated article, it is not a true abstract and, therefore, rarely used in academic writing.
II. Writing Style
Use the active voice when possible, but note that much of your abstract may require passive sentence constructions. Regardless, write your abstract using concise, but complete, sentences. Get to the point quickly and always use the past tense because you are reporting on research that has been completed.
Although it is the first section of your paper, the abstract, by definition, should be written last since it will summarize the contents of your entire paper. To begin composing your abstract, take whole sentences or key phrases from each section and put them in a sequence that summarizes the paper. Then revise or add connecting phrases or words to make it cohensive and clear. Before handing in your final paper, check to make sure that the information in the abstract completely agrees with what your have written in the paper.
The abstract SHOULD NOT contain:
- Lengthy background information,
- References to other literature [say something like, "current research shows that..." or "studies have indicated..."],
- Using ellipticals [i.e., ending with "..."] or incomplete sentences,
- Abbreviations, jargon, or terms that may be confusing to the reader, and
- Any sort of image, illustration, figure, or table, or references to them.
Abstract. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Abstract. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Abstracts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Borko, Harold and Seymour Chatman. "Criteria for Acceptable Abstracts: A Survey of Abstracters' Instructions." American Documentation 14 (April 1963): 149-160; Abstracts. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Hartley, James and Lucy Betts. "Common Weaknesses in Traditional Abstracts in hte Social Sciences." Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60 (October 2009): 2010-2018; Procter, Margaret. The Abstract. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing Report Abstracts. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Abstracts. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Koltay, Tibor. Abstracts and Abstracting: A Genre and Set of Skills for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford, UK: 2010