An abstract is an elevator pitch to our audience.  It’s a short 250-350 words, but those few words have to win over the audience with orienting, motive, and thesis.  It’s an exciting opportunity with high stakes:  this pitch could get your work into a conference or journal.

The key to any abstract is writing to our audience.  An author does not need the abstract, but the reader does.  What does our audience need to know to understand and care about this research?

Orienting and Key Terms

Audience determines orienting and the specificity of key terms.  Usually, readers do not have a deep knowledge of our topic, so we must orient and explain key terms.  Adrian Tasistro-Hart’s abstract in this section demonstrates straightforward language and orienting that make his paper and research accessible to a broad audience, including readers in his field.


Motive, the justification for our research, also must be tailored to our audience.  Why should a reader be interested in this paper?  What problem are we addressing?  What gap in the current study of this topic are we filling?  Motive is what drives us to research and write and what drives our audience to read.  Benjamin Spar illustrates this in his abstracts.  He includes an abstract for a biology conference and then re-frames the same paper for a computer science audience in another mock abstract.  His research is the same, but he frames motive to fit his audience.


If the motive is our “ask,” then the thesis is our “answer,” and we want to give the gist of this argument and our conclusions so that readers know where we are going.  Both Will Squiers’s and Adrian’s abstracts include clear theses that explain the argumentative result of their research and resolve their motivating questions.

Nitty-Gritty Word Choices

Being concise means focusing on individual word choices and sentence structure.  Use simple, nonjargon words, define them, and write in a straightforward manner.  Transitions and conjunctions like “yet” and “but” become powerful, one-word tools that can show motive or argument.  We see this in Will’s abstract, where he uses markers such as “then” and “finally” to capture the movements of his argument in a single word.
In short, an abstract is like a miniature record of academic inquiry and research.  We give background (orienting), pose a question (motive), and then proceed to solve this question (thesis).  And if we keep our audience in mind, we will hopefully succeed in enticing them to read and find out more.

The author


Abigail Kelly ’14 is from Beverly, Massachusetts, studying in the Religion Department. She works at the Writing Center on the Tortoise editorial staff and as a Head Fellow, and can be found singing jazz and classical music in various groups across campus.

Shannon Winston is a Writing Center Postdoctoral Fellow and a Writing Program faculty member at Princeton University. Her academic work examines the role of visuality, especially hindered and constrained visual tropes, in shaping literature from the French, Moroccan, Italian, and Algerian Mediterranean. Her secondary interests include global modernisms, theories of perception, and affect studies. She also writes poetry and is the author of Threads Give Way (Cold Press Publishing, 2010).