In a Tortoiseshell: Excerpted from a computer science paper, this abstract successfully condenses the essential aspects of a lengthy paper into a potent, concise account. In clearly outlining an initial problem, the author’s solution and his methodology, this abstract provides the reader with a comprehensive overview of the paper’s core argumentative elements.
An abstract is more than just a summary of key points and ideas. While an abstract certainly does touch upon key takeaways, it essentially functions as a condensed account of a paper. Moreover, an effective abstract’s key concepts are carefully structured to capture the essence of the paper.
So what does this ideal abstract structure look like? An abstract should first clearly outline the problem the author is trying to solve. To borrow the terminology of the Writing Program’s Lexicon, this would mean that the abstract establishes the motive. This is essential for establishing the relevancy and necessity of one’s paper; in reading the abstract the reader should immediately be able to identify the problem at hand. From there, the abstract should present the author’s thesis as a response to this problem so that the reader can immediately grasp the author’s approach to the issue. This is not only accomplished through the succinct presentation of the thesis but can also consist of a short discussion of the methodology employed and the initial results and conclusions arrived at from such an investigation. As a result, the author not only presents readers with the problem, the respective solution, and the approaches to rationalizing this solution, but also establishes the relevancy and importance of the paper for the target audience.
In a Tortoiseshell: These two highly technical abstracts, the first of which was submitted to an academic conference, briefly outline the method and results of a long-term research project on a specific cell protein. The two abstracts are aimed at two different audiences—a biology conference and a computer science conference—which makes the selection an excellent example of writing for different audiences.
In a Tortoiseshell: Integrating motive, thesis, and orienting into one straightforward paragraph is no simple task. But Adrian Tasistro-Hart manages to do precisely that in the below abstract of his paper about deforestation in South America. Continue reading
In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt analyzes one, specific term in Paradise Lost, and its ramifications for the text more broadly. The author manages to define his argument cogently on both the micro and the macro level, situating his key terms in an understandable (but nuanced) way, while also crafting topic sentences that analyze rather than stating fact.
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.