An abstract functions as a hook. Its goal is to attract readers to look at the rest of your paper or come to your talk. Your abstract will vary depending on the audience and your message, so customize it to maximize its effectiveness. While the content and length may vary, there is a proven structure for writing a successful abstract. Check out the annotated examples to see what an effective abstract could look like.

Contents
1. Before you start
1.1. Determine your purpose
1.2. Identify your audience
1.3. Decide on your takeaway message
2. Write your abstract using this proven structure
3. Maximize effectiveness
3.1. Remove jargon
3.2. Compose a strong title
3.3. Consider a graphical abstract
4. Quick tips
5. Annotated examples

 

1. Before you start

Begin by clarifying your purpose (“Why”) and your audience (“Who”), knowing that one will inform the other. Your answers will help define your core message (“What”).

1.1. Determine your purpose

What should your abstract achieve? The purpose of an abstract is to help the reader decide if your presentation is worth attending, document worth reading, or poster worth accepting for a conference. Your abstract should quickly communicate to a reader what they will find in your work.

1.2. Identify your audience

Who should be able to understand your work? Your audience can be very diverse, ranging from content experts to researchers from completely different fields. Identifying your target audience will you help you think about what they already know, what they care about, and what they need to know in order for you to achieve your objective.

On the right are two abstracts describing the same work: one contains field-specific language and assumptions about what the audience cares about, whereas the other highlights broader impacts. However, remember that your audience is almost always mixed. Start from a place that most people can understand and include enough technical detail to satisfy the curious expert.

1.3. Decide on your takeaway message

What is the single most important thing you want your audience to remember? Based on your objective and target audience, try to answer this question in plain words and in one sentence. Your takeaway message isn’t necessarily your title. For instance, “A Functionally Graded Composite for Service in Advanced LBE-Cooled Systems” (Michael Short‘s PhD thesis) boils down to “Sometimes one alloy just can’t fix everything; composite alloys are the way to go.”

At this stage, you now have the basis for determining what to include in the background, results, and impact sections of your abstract.

Return to Contents

 

2. Write your abstract using this proven structure

Having established the fundamentals behind your abstract, you can now plan the content. An effective abstract follows the shape of an hourglass: broad in scope at the top and bottom, and narrow in the middle.

Below is an example of how that structure translates into an actual abstract.

The Annotated Examples section shows how this structure works for abstracts found in different contexts, including slide presentations, journal articles, and doctoral theses.

Return to Contents

 

3. Maximize its effectiveness

Now you can evaluate your draft and increase its effectiveness. Here are three ways to accomplish this.

3.1. Remove jargon

Although your work is technical in nature, make sure your abstract is accessible to the full range of readers. Avoid jargon (specialized language used by content experts) by defining acronyms and possibly-obscure terminology. For example, replace “18/8 SS” with “corrosion resistant steel (18/8)”. Other strategies include breaking down your message into simpler sentences.

3.2. Compose a strong title

A strong title summarizes the main idea you want to get across. To make a weak title into a strong title, pick out the key nouns and verbs, and link them together with as few words as possible. Consider the following example (credit: Brandon Sorbom):

3.3. Consider a graphical abstract

Increasingly, journals are requesting an accompanying graphical abstract for your paper. Potential readers will see this figure while browsing, so clearly summarize the key takeaway message from your article, and check out our Figure Design article for tips on creating effective visuals. Here’s an example:

Curd et al. ‘The heterogenous distribution of white etching matter (WEM) around subsurface cracks in bearing steels’ Acta Materialia, 174 (2019) 300-309 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actamat.2019.05.052

Return to Contents

 

4. Quick tips

  • Make sure to follow the specifications from your event organizer or publisher. For instance, abstracts for doctoral theses at MIT should be under 350 words.
  • There are many other great resources online, including:
    • Jean-luc Doumont’s presentation Shortcomings in Scientific Writing, specifically pages 16-42;
    • this guide from the Writing Center at George Mason University. Be sure to click on “Download this guide as a PDF” in the right-hand column.

Return to Contents

 

5. Annotated examples

Below are abstract examples meant for different communication tasks. Note how they all share a similar structure.

Abstract for a journal article

Abstract for a seminar presentation

Abstract for a doctoral thesis

Return to Contents