If you’re a math person, the word abstract likely conjures up numbers like three or seven (numbers that don’t really refer to a certain thing).
If you’re more of an artist, you might envision Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
And for those of you who are into teaching, medicine, or maybe psychology, you might think of abstract thinking upon the mention of the term.
But what does the word abstract mean when it comes to writing?
In the simplest of terms, an abstract is a summary of your paper. It’s not your basic run-of-the-mill summary, though. It requires several specific components.
If you’re still thinking abstractly about numbers or a starry night and can’t quite imagine an abstract for your paper, here’s how to write an abstract the right way.
What Is an Abstract?
An abstract is a concise summary of the key parts of a research paper. It should be one fully developed paragraph, usually between 150-500 words. (Check with your professor to see how long your abstract should be.)
Ideally, the abstract should engage your audience, make them want to read your paper, and make them want to learn more about your research.
Thus, the abstract should stand alone and still make sense.
In other words, your audience should be able to read only your abstract and still understand the key components of your research paper.
How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper
Now that you have a better understanding of what an abstract is, it’s time to start learning how to write an abstract for a research paper.
Step 1: Write the research paper
As I’m sure you know, when you write and revise, your plans change. You might move or delete words, paragraphs, and even entire arguments. This means it’s almost impossible to write a summary of your work before you’ve written it.
Makes sense, right? Right. So write your research paper first.
Step 2: Identify the key sections of the paper
In basic research essays, you might simply review resources and create an argument based solely on what you’ve read. If this is the case, you’ll need to look for the main arguments of your paper and summarize them to write your abstract.
If, however, you’re writing a more detailed research essay based on the results of your own survey, study, or experiment, you’ll need to identify the following sections.
- Problem and why you’re researching the problem: This section will include a brief overview of the problem and explain why the problem is worth researching. It may also perhaps explain why readers should care about this topic.
- Methods or procedures used: This section will focus on how you completed your research. For example, did you interview people, complete an experiment, survey people, or complete some other type of research? Though it should be brief and concise, it also needs to be specific. If you surveyed 12 college students or interviewed 19 senior citizens, include that in this section.
- Results or findings: This section will include a short description of the results of your study. In other words, what did you learn through your research?
- Conclusions or implications: This section will discuss the conclusions of your research. Think about the larger implications of your work. What does it mean in the broad scope of things?
Step 3: Draft a description of the key sections
In can be challenging to write the abstract all at once. Start by sketching out your ideas in a rough draft format.
Here’s an example of a draft you might write for a research paper about college students and their ability (or lack of ability) to stick to a budget.
Problem and why you’re researching the problem
Most college students have income from a full- or part-time job, money from parents, student loans, or other financial aid. By the end of the week (or by the end of the month), many students are broke. Do students not have enough money to meet their basic needs, or are these students just not able to stay on budget? Do they simply spend more money than they should on things that aren’t really necessary?
Methods or procedures used
Twenty-two students at a local university agreed to volunteer for the survey. These students completed a questionnaire regarding their sources of income, their monthly expenses, and how much money they spent (both necessary and unnecessary expenses). Students were also asked to track all money spent for one month.
Results or findings
Based on the results, all 22 students had enough money to meet their monthly required expenses (including money budgeted for entertainment). After looking at the survey results, most students ran out of money because they over-spent on the following four areas: eating out, clothing, alcohol, and music/video games.
Conclusions or implications
Most students surveyed spent more money than they should have on entertainment. When the students surveyed ran out of money, they asked their parents for more money or charged more on their credit cards. (Some did both.) This implies that students need more education about how to budget their money.
Step 4: Put it all together
Drafting each section separately helps ease the stress a little and gives you a chance to outline your ideas, especially when you’re first learning how to write an abstract.
Writing the actual abstract can be a bit trickier though. You need to not only fit all that stuff in one concise paragraph, but you also need to fit it all in within a set number of words.
That means word choice matters, so make every word count!
Here are a few quick tips to help you turn your draft into a respectable abstract:
- Copy and paste each section together into one paragraph. This will help you see how it sounds as one piece of writing rather than individual sections.
- Look for awkward wording and places where you might replace vague words with more concrete words.
- Look for places to add transitions to link ideas together.
- Ask yourself what’s not needed. Can you eliminate any unnecessary content?
- Ask yourself what’s missing. Do readers need to know anything else in order to understand your research paper?
TAKE NOTE: In some cases, abstracts are not written in one paragraph, and you’re allowed to use headings (like the headings I’ve included in the draft above). Check with your professor to see which type of abstract is required for your assignment.
Here’s what the final abstract for the research paper about college students and their spending habits might look like.
(I’ve written this abstract in one paragraph, but you could easily add the appropriate headings into the abstract.)
Even though many college students have income from one or more sources—such as a full- or part-time job, parental support, student loans, or other financial aid—many students often go over-budget. In an attempt to understand how and why students over-spend, this research included 22 student volunteers from a local university who completed a questionnaire regarding their sources of income and their monthly expenses and expenditures. Students also tracked all money spent for one month. Based on the results of the study, all 22 students had sufficient income to meet their monthly required expenses (including money budgeted for entertainment). However, 20 out of 22 students went over-budget because they over-spent on the following four areas: eating out, clothing, alcohol, and music/video games. Once over-budget, 17 of the 20 over-budget students asked their parents for money or charged additional expenses on credit cards. This research highlighted the need for additional money-management counseling and education for teens and young adults.
Final Words of Advice
Once you’ve completed a draft of your abstract, set it aside before you revise. When you return to it (hopefully at least 24 hours later), review your draft to make sure you’ve avoided any pitfalls.
What not to do:
- Don’t include any information in your abstract that’s not in your paper.
- Don’t use jargon or acronyms that readers may not understand.
- Don’t use first person or second person (unless referring to yourself as the researcher, if permitted or required per your instructor or an official style guide). Write in third person.
- Don’t start sentences with phrases like “It appears that…” or “It is believed…” Cutting these phrases creates a stronger statement (and deletes unnecessary wording).
Looking for examples of professionally written abstracts? Check out 10 Good Abstract Examples That Will Kickstart Your Brain.
For even more examples, read these example abstracts from advanced undergrad students.
Whether you’re just learning how to write an abstract or even if you’re a seasoned pro, it’s always a good idea to have someone else review your work. Send your abstract—or better yet—send your entire research paper our way. Kibin editors are ready to help!