1. Introduction

An abstract is a short description of a paper or presentation that informs people of its main points. The abstract serves as an advertisement to draw in potential readers/listeners and allow them to make an informed decision about whether they want to read further or attend your presentation. Abstracts are typically very structured, but details such as length or content can vary depending on the target audience and the message you want to get across.

2. Criteria for Success

  • Your abstract introduces the problem you’re trying to solve, how you addressed it, and what the implications are
  • Your abstract is accessible to a broad group of potential audience members, not explaining any one component of your paper/presentation in too much detail
  • Your abstract is between 150-250 words


3. Purpose

Your abstract is your sales pitch for your work. When browsing a journal, very few readers get beyond the title and abstract for any article. If you haven’t convinced your reader by the end of the abstract that your work is interesting and relevant, you’ve lost the opportunity to convert them from curious browser to dedicated reader. The same goes for folks deciding which talks and posters to see at a busy conference.

In only a few hundred words—or, from your audience’s perspective, a few minutes of reading time—you have to

  • convince your reader that your work is addressing an authentic, pressing problem in science or engineering,
  • convey the essence of your results,
  • explain what those results mean for the state of the field and for future work.

With these points in mind, it is worth emphasizing that while your abstract should advertise your work, it should also represent it in an accurate way. The goal is to draw in anyone who may be interested in, or may benefit from, your work – not necessarily everyone who comes across your abstract. Note that this Commkit does not cover extended abstracts, which serve a different purpose (providing a more extensive summary of your work, typically for initial submissions to conferences or other venues).


4. Analyze Your Audience

Most people will take only seconds to minutes to skim your abstract in order to decide whether they actually want to learn more about your work. They may not be experts in your specific field of study, so it’s important to make your abstract understandable to a broader audience.

Consider the venue that your abstract will appear in – is it broad or specialized? You should start from a place that your entire audience can understand. For a specialized audience, you could lead with “Simultaneous localization and mapping allows for autonomous vehicles to generate pose estimates within an environment,” or even “This paper addresses the simultaneous localization and mapping problem for multi-agent systems.” For journals with broader readership, you would need to start with something everyone cares about, say, “The ability to move equipment into orbit is important for a variety of services affecting both exploration in space and life on Earth.”


5. Structure Diagram


 A diagram of the hourglass model and two possible abstract structures.

Figure 1. The Hourglass Model. Courtesy of the NSE Communication Lab


Generally, you can think of the structure of an abstract as an hourglass where the width of the hourglass at any point represents the size of the intended audience for that section. The idea is to start broad with statements that appeal to a large audience, then introduce background and discussion that is more specific to the problem your paper addresses. Discussion of your methods and how they fill a certain knowledge gap may be understood by only a fraction of the people viewing your abstract, but you can then capture the general audience again with statements about your results and their implications. More formally, the structure (Structure 1 in Fig. 1) of an abstract should include:

  1. Motivating Background: A big-picture idea about something important that everyone in your audience cares about.
  2. Specific Background: A specific idea that provides a more detailed discussion on elements of the general background.
  3. Knowledge Gap/Problem Statement: A description of the actual problem you’re addressing. Discuss what’s lacking in the current field or known approaches. Use a pivot word like “however” to set up the contrast with the existing knowledge base.
  4. “Here we show…”: One sentence about what you learned or did, and how that fulfills the demonstrated gap.
  5. Results: Only the very highest-level methodology results.
  6. Implications: What do your results mean for the thing everyone cares about?

Note that in specialized settings such as a small conference, workshop, or special journal issue, it may be good to start with a more specific statement to clarify to the audience how your work stands out from other works that likely have a similar general background (Structure 2 in Fig. 1). Keep in mind that the other components of the abstract are still important, so once the defining feature of your work has been established, it is important to use the hourglass model to motivate and explain your work.


6. Best Practices

6.1. Avoid unnecessary jargon

Don’t rely on technical names; explain what something is or why it matters for your work. If by “airfoil” you really mean “wing”, just say “wing”. Rather than “RS-68”, you might say “a liquid fuel rocket engine (RS-68)”. In this way, you speak to the general audience (who can understand “liquid fuel rocket engine”) and to your specialist peers (who would ask, “Which liquid fuel rocket engine?”). Be critical of any jargon you include, and remove any that is not essential to conveying your high-level message. Consider asking a friend in a different lab or different field to read over your abstract and point out any terms that obscure your meaning.


6.2. Use the standard abstract structure

Every successful abstract has six components. Use the list from the structure diagram above! Include general background to appeal to many potential readers. Then hone in on the problem by discussing more specific background and how your work addresses a specific knowledge gap. Finally, use discussion of your results and their implications to advertise your work to a broader audience.


6.3. Be concise

Every component from the abstract formula should only have a few sentences at most; concise abstracts are usually around 150 words, up to 250 words maximum.



This content was adapted by AeroAstro Comm Lab from articles originally created by the BE Comm Lab, the MechE Comm Lab, and the NSE Comm Lab.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 2: Airframe Design for

Annotated Example 2: Airframe Design for "Silent Aircraft"

Abstract with structure breakdown and comments 178 KB