Impress with Your Abstracts


Arguably one of the hardest tasks in scientific communication is distilling 3 years of work down to 15 slides or a single abstract. In my early days of grad school, I recall taking half a week to write my first conference abstract - those precious 250 words were meticulously selected. Handcrafted.

Now I can bang out an abstract in under 15 minutes, which is a million times faster and less painful than before. In this post, I want to take you through 5 key considerations when writing an abstract for a conference or for a journal article. Let's get to it.


It’s a snapshot, not an introduction

You're not alone if you believe that an abstract is a mini introduction to your paper, saving the big reveal (the results) for the paper. You might even think, "I want to entice more people to read my paper by keeping the contents a mystery!" While this strategy might work in advertising and marketing, discerning academic readers need more information to persuade them to read on.

Think of an abstract as a Polaroid snapshot of your project: there's enough content to get a sense for what it's about, without fine, crisp detail you'd get from a DSLR.


There’s a formula

Following the previous point, mirror the proportions of content from your paper to your abstract. This guideline is useful across multiple forms of papers -- from proposed projects (protocols) to literature reviews to education innovations -- not just primary research studies.

If a quarter of your paper is the methods section, a quarter of your abstract should detail the methods. When you're really stuck, start by writing one sentence to represent each paragraph in your paper, then pare it back to the word limit {this also works for executive summaries and 1-pagers}.

For research studies, here's my formula for a standard-length abstract (adapt for your paper or project):

  • Introduction: 1-3 sentences; build the argument by providing the bigger context and the problem or gap

  • Objective: 1 sentence; this can even be a phrase: "Objective: To explore..." {this helps save on the word count}

  • Methods: 2-5 sentences; include high-level details from each subsection: design, participants (n), data collection, data analysis

  • Results: 4-8 sentences; highlight the major results

  • Discussion: 1-3 sentences; revisit the study objective, and provide implications of your work for the intended audience


Structure it

Journals and conferences often require abstracts to be structured: this means that abstracts have defined sections with headers. In the previous example (following the traditional IMRaD format), there are 5 headers and sections in a sequence: introduction, objective, methods, results, discussion. The headers will depend on your project and what the journal or conference requires.

Structured abstracts help readers to find specific content, like the study objective. For authors, using a structured format prompts us to include all sections of the paper in the abstract. While you don't need subheaders in structured abstracts (for example, participants, data collection), I encourage you to use them in early drafts to remind you to include those pieces.

I've worked with loads of authors who have written an unstructured abstract. I almost always notice entire subsections or full sections missing (no introduction or discussion, no description of data analysis). If your journal or conference requires an unstructured abstract, use the heading when writing it and remove before you submit.

If you want a lesson on the importance of order and structure, read Hartley and Betts' (2009) article. They provide a fantastic example of how an abstract can be transformed from all over the place less effective to shorter and with with more information through the use of structure. For the full experience, read the example abstract then read the original paper BEFORE you review their edited abstract.


Reporting guidelines

If you conduct health research, you gotta know about the EQUATOR Network library of reporting guidelines! There will be a future post on the magic of reporting guidelines (they make writing so much easier + improve transparency/quality of research reporting + many journals endorse them). For now, think about reporting guidelines as checklists of the most important elements to include in a paper or abstract.

To date, there are specific reporting guidelines for abstracts of systematic reviewsrandomized trials, and observational studies, among others for study designs, methods, or clinical foci.

Should you describe all the electronic databases searched in your systematic review, or is it enough to give the number of databases searched? Do you need the characteristics of studies include in your systematic review abstract? What about the registration number and registry name? Check the PRISMA for abstracts guideline.


Consider audience and how it will be used

As with all forms of writing, audience is critical. I invite you to consider the different types of audiences for any given abstract:

  • The gatekeepers: Conference organizers, journal editors, reviewers

  • The researchers: Conference delegates and journal readers

  • The knowledge users: Often non-researchers (practitioners, educators, policy makers, patients/public, or organizations)

Our goal is to make sure that what we have to say (message) is tailored to our audience, so we need to inhabit their shoes. What do they know? Not know? What do they care about? Where are they from (local or international)? Do they know our jargon and acronyms? Are they tired {this is a big one when you're writing grants}? Do they have access to the full article?

Beyond defining who your audience is, it's essential to also consider how abstracts are used by your audience. Take a second to consider how you use abstracts...

Editors use abstracts to determine if the paper fits the journal's aims/scope and if the paper should go to peer review. Systematic reviewers use abstracts to screen for inclusion in their reviews, from the population to validity to results (see Beller et al., 2013).

I read abstracts daily: to figure out if the paper is relevant and if I should read the full paper, to pick conference sessions, to see if I need to pull a full-text for a lit review {some days I read 8 zillion for this reason; again, rounding up}. To me, an ideal abstract is an accurate representation of what's in the main text of the PDF.


What will you use for writing your next abstract?

Here's a recap:

  1. It's a snapshot, not an introduction

  2. There's a formula

  3. Structure it

  4. Reporting guidelines

  5. Consider audience + how abstracts are used

WritingJill Norris