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. Despite differences in content and length, there are general structures for writing a successful abstract. Check out the annotated examples to see what an effective abstract could look like.
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? How broad or narrow are your readers’ research areas? Identifying your target audience will 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. (You may also choose your audience to match your objective, like when you decide where to submit a paper.)
If you’re submitting an abstract for a talk at a Materials Research Society meeting, your target audience will be those in your section rather than the thousands of members who will be attending. If you’re advertising your departmental seminar talk, you would aim for graduate students who have passed their doctoral qualifying exams; someone with a solid nuclear background but who is unfamiliar with your post-quals research work.
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.
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.” It will be easier to write your abstract once you are clear on what really want to say.
At this stage, you now have the basis for determining what to include in the background, results, and impact sections of your abstract.
2. Write your abstract using the right structure
There will be variations in length depending on the audience and the purpose of the document, but your abstract should include five functional sections: motivating background (context), problem statement (why this work is needed), “here we show” (your takeaway), results (what you found), and implications (why this work matters). Each section is described in greater detail below.
An effective abstract often follows the shape of an hourglass: broad in scope at the top and bottom, and narrow in the middle (Structure #1). Another approach is to lead with the takeaway (Structure #2), which is common when the intended audience is already familiar with the topic. These readers will likely understand the motivation, though a smooth transition to the background will allow an uninitiated reader to keep up.
2.1. Motivating background: Avoid the “fluff”
Start with something general that everyone in your audience cares about, then narrow down to a more specific background. Provide the proper context for your specific audience to appreciate the importance of your work. For example, a reader of a fusion journal likely only needs to know why you chose a specific confinement mode, whereas a non-fusion specialist would need an explanation of what a confinement mode is (and why they should care) first.
Regardless of context, avoid “fluff.” Avoid broad statements like, “With the growing threat of climate change, it is important to pursue clean energy options, including…” While those can be sometimes appropriate, it’s best to set up why your project is unique concisely and clearly, without overly general commentary that doesn’t add substance.
2.2. Problem statement: Show the knowledge gap
What question are you trying to answer? Focus in on the specific problem or gap in knowledge that your research addresses, this is the primary motivation for your work. It is helpful to have a clearly defined problem statement in your mind, although it often flows naturally out of a well-written background. With the proper buildup, the problem statement should become obvious.
2.3. Results: Make them quantitative (if possible)
The results are arguably the most important section of an abstract. All the other sections in your abstract support the results by providing context, explaining the impact, or offering background. Granted, some abstracts must be submitted far in advance (e.g. conference abstracts) but it is best to provide concrete, explicit results (“… resolves both the geometric and isotropic makeup of an object.”) and, when possible, quantitative results (“a temporal resolution of between 1 and 10 s…”). By asserting specific results in the abstract, you’re offering a clearer picture of what your paper/presentation/etc. will contain (and what it will not).
2.4. Impact: Tie it back to the beginning
Explicitly state the implications of your findings by linking back to the motivating background mentioned at the beginning of your abstract. Again, consider your key message and use this opportunity to leave a lasting impression on your reader.
The Annotated Examples section illustrates how these sections work for abstracts with different structures, used in different contexts (including slide presentations, journal articles, and doctoral theses).
3. Maximize its effectiveness
Now you can evaluate your draft and increase its effectiveness. Here are three ways to accomplish this.
3.1. Be careful using jargon
“Jargon” (specialized language used by content experts) is a relative term, and there are instances where jargon is expected in order to describe technical content precisely and concisely (see Identify Your Audience). However, that choice must be deliberate.
If you’re writing for a specialized journal like Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A, assume you can skip a lot of background while introducing technical detail that may be considered jargon by non-experts. If you’re writing for a journal with a broader reach such as Nature Materials, you will need to remove jargon, and provide more background and an explicit significance statement.
To reach an audience that includes those outside your specific research area, you can avoid jargon 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):
3.4. 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:
4. Quick tips
- Make sure to follow the specifications from your event organizer or publisher. Some journals ask that you not include any references, abstracts for doctoral theses at MIT should be under 350 words, etc. Journals will have a “guide for authors” or “author instructions” you can look up online.
- Gauging the appropriate balance between technical content and background can be difficult and often comes with experience. Some advisors expect the technical content to take up 50% of the abstract. Be sure to seek feedback from your advisor, a co-author, or a peer like a Communication Fellow, depending on your target audience.
- There are many other great resources online, including:
5. Annotated examples
Below are abstract examples meant for different communication tasks.
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