How to write an abstract – a terrible guide no one should follow

This week I submitted another paper. It’s obviously a brilliant in-depth discussion of an amazing piece of science I just invented which will have wide reaching implications for literally everything.

Or at least that’s how I described it to the editors anyway.

Now I where possible try to always make my papers open access. However, because I’m a fairly small fish in the academic pond I get little say on the matter and some of my papers are unfortunately only accessible to those willing to pay a fee equivalent to one month of my salary.

But the one thing that everyone can read is my abstracts. For those not in the know of academic terminology these are short (100-200 words) summaries of the paper. For the publisher they are basically an advert to pay for the full thing. And by pay I mean PAY as the size of the fees they charge to read a single paper warrants all capitals. For the reader they offer a nifty TL;DR, and for the writer they are a good way to hopefully get people to cite your work.

Getting your abstract right is one of the most important things as it’s also the only thing the majority of people will ever read of your work.

Given its importance I thought I would help any would be paper authors craft the best abstract. So if you need to prepare a good abstract then this guide is the absolutely last thing you should ever follow.

Tease

First it’s important to understand the purpose of your abstract. You’ve written a fantastic paper. One that has required sleepless nights, blood, sweat and possibly several angry cups of coffee. To sum it up in an abstract will obviously never do it justice. How could 100 words possibly compete with your opus. Moreover, how dare the readers think that they can just read the abstract and get a true understanding of your brilliance.

So what you need to do is be sure to use the abstract as your way of luring the reader in. What you need to write is the equivalent of a cheeky look over a lacy fan at a 17th century dance; think alluring.

The last thing you want is to have people reading your abstract and nothing else! You worked for that paper and need to persuade them to look at it further. If you put down all your key methods and conclusions then any reader is obviously going to be able to get what they want from the abstract and will leave your poor paper alone and un-downloaded!

Make it eye catching

BuzzFeed understands how to get people to read their stuff. A big part of that is down to the their mastery of titles (something that really needs covering in its own guide), but also because of their ability to hook people in right from the get go.

What you need is to channel some of this internet writing and make sure your first few sentences really grab the reader with something that will make them keep reading. “Here we present 10 things that you’ll never believe about the life cycles of bic biros” or “Our paper sets out the methodologies for one trick that other PhDs hate”.

But even beyond that first sentence make it something that invites further investigation. Have a really crucial method then be sure to not mention the exact use of it or maybe not even its name – just write “Using something…”. It leaves more to the reader’s imagination. Likewise if there is a statistic or number that is really commonly used in your field be sure to mention that you have this number but on no account write it in the abstract. Draw them in.

Repeat everything

Nothing gets a point across like repeating yourself. While it might be tempting to set out a nicely broken down key point version of you paper giving the reader a very clear idea of its contents, it is actually better to focus on the one point you want to get across and just re-write that several times in different ways.

The last thing you want is to muddy up the abstract with unnecessary details. Skip straight to the conclusion and then write that as many time as you possibly can. After all, it’s the important bit and worth repeating. Especially if you just keep repeating them endlessly. Because repe- [ED: enough of that]

Be prepared

Finally, conventional wisdom says that writing an abstract is the last thing you should do when preparing a paper. Lesser academics will argue that papers change while they are being written and you may not know for certain the final flow until you’ve finished.

This is the advice of academics that don’t plan as well as you. When setting out to prepare a paper you obviously know the structure perfectly and there will be no changes whatsoever. In fact the abstract is a great place to get some of that planning out the way early. A nice meandering abstract that vaguely describes what you might write in the your paper is a good place to start and will help you put your paper together.

Also, writing the abstract early on you need to remember that once it’s written don’t go back and edit or update it to match the final paper. It can remain as a testament to the paper that would have been if you had got your way before those meddling co-authors changed everything.


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