Write the abstract last. It is impossible to do otherwise because an abstract should only ever be an accurate reflection of the manuscript and should not include any information that cannot be found in the manuscript. The abstract quickly answers four questions to enable the reader to decide if they want to look at the whole manuscript:
Why did you start? What did you do…? What did you find? What do your findings mean?
One of the biggest challenges is to condense all the above information into as few as 150–200 words. Here is a technique that may help, though this will depend on the discipline and type of research.
- Background: keep it short and relevant.
- Methods: kept to a minimum (unless a ‘methods’ paper).
- Results: should be the bulk – perhaps up to 50% of the abstract.
- Discussion: usually not needed.
- Conclusion: essential.
The abstract is the ultimate test of your ability to be clear and concise: delivering the relevant facts in as few words as possible. Readers of abstracts are not looking for flowing prose, signposting or other techniques used in, for instance, a compelling introduction or review.
So, you will need to consider the following:
- use short sentences
- use simple, specific words
- edit out 'waste' words
- be consistent as you use mixed tenses – you will have present and past tenses close together
- use the active voice where appropriate
- don’t be afraid to use first person (‘we’)
- take care to explain any abbreviations.
Finally, here are some common errors to avoid when writing your abstract:
- background too long – uses up valuable words
- question omitted or vague – so we must guess the question!
- answer not stated – so we must guess the answer!
- a result summarised (‘X was more effective than Y’) without numerical data to support it (60% vs. 20% … statistics)
- too many results – just the main ones because you can’t get all results in the abstract
- ‘conclusion creep’ – the abstract conclusion contains something different from or in addition to the main manuscript conclusion.