Writing in Research Series: Abstracts
By Kelsey A. Martinez, PhD, UDRC Manager
November 18, 2020
Photo by Damian Zaleski
This week, I’ll expand on a blog series started by our research team that focuses on research writing tips: writing an abstract. Abstract writing is particularly difficult. The abstract is usually the last piece you write in a research document. You might have a looming deadline or perhaps you’re just tired of the project and ready to move on to something fresh… we have all been there! Sometimes you even have word limits to deal with when writing an abstract. A 350 word limit doesn’t leave room for unnecessary content..
While the abstract might be the last part of the document that you write, it’s certainly not the least. In fact, it might be the only section many readers actually read. The abstract could also be the section that reels a reader in and gets them to read more of your work. Make it count! Here are a few tips I’ve gathered over the years to increase effectiveness of your abstracts:
ELI5. (Explain your research to me like I am 5 years old)
Remember that your reader hasn’t spent months thinking about your research project. They probably haven’t even spent 5 minutes thinking about it. I like to pretend that I’m giving a summary of my research project to someone at a party that has no research background, no clue what I do, and why they should care. Try not to go into too much analytical detail. In my experience, no one except a fraction of subject matter experts will be super interested in your methods. Giving too many details on methods & stats in the abstract is a surefire way to instantly lose a big chunk of your audience. (Unless of course you’re writing a methods paper.) Keep it simple!
Tell the story.
This gets stressed so often in research and analytics now that it’s almost trite. However, this is literally the whole point of the abstract. Give us a brief contextual overview, then tell us what you did and why you did it, what the findings were, and why the findings are important. Remember, if this is the only thing a reader looks at, you want to make sure they understand the importance of your research findings. When drafting an abstract, I start with a one or two sentence ordered summary of each of the research document components to do this: intro, methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. Once you have these points written, you can easily string them together for a first draft of your abstract.
Cut out unnecessary words.
This applies to report and academic writing in general, but is especially true for abstracts. I will admit I am frequently guilty of using too many words in my writing. The first things I check for to improve my writing style are redundant adjectives, unnecessary commas, and superfluous prepositions & articles. Here are some more good tips for reducing wordiness in your writing. I would recommend limiting sentence structures to simple sentences and only using compound or complex sentence structures when necessary. These lengthy sentence types confuse the reader. The abstract is the last place we want to confuse a reader!
Edit, edit some more, and then edit again.
Editing is truly the key to producing good writing. No one writes everything perfectly on their first try. Write for a bit, then do some editing. Take a break, and then edit some more. Your writing will improve with each iteration. Some things I look for when I’m editing are wordiness, sentence flow, paragraph structure, and paragraph transitions. Don’t be afraid to scrap a whole paragraph or re-order an entire section!
Abstract writing is difficult. We all know it, no need for sugarcoating. However, I hope these tips will get you started on writing and improving your abstracts. If you have other abstract writing tips, share them with us via twitter @UTDataResearch!