An academic abstract can be likened to a miniature work of art. It is an academic promo for a larger academic production. Within the confines of only a few hundred words, a clearly written abstract affords a bird’s-eye view and summary of work that may have taken many hundreds of hours and many thousands of dollars to construct (Jens Hansen).
There are three reasons to write a good abstract when hoping to present at a conference: (1) you want the conference programme committee to pick you! (2) Delegates will read your abstract among many others and your abstract needs to attract them to come to hear your paper. (3) The title and abstract may remain on a website which means that people may be able to find out about your work long after the conference.
An abstract is a brief (word limits are usually 100-250 words) strong and clear statement describing a larger paper to follow. Your title should be clear and contain the key words of your topic. Bearing in mind that you may only have 10-20 minutes to present, you will need a clear structure. A good way to start is to jot down the 3-4 key ideas you want to communicate in the presentation. This generates the major elements of your abstract. A good abstract may only need about four or five sentences to be effective:
• an introductory sentence that describes the phenomenon or problem you are considering;
• a sentence or two saying what you studied and how;
• one saying what your findings were;
• one last sentence explaining the implications of your findings, with some recommendations and/or suggesting further research.
If your paper is reporting research it should be complete, or if ‘in progress’ you would generally need to be reporting a completed section of the study or a fully evaluated pilot. If it is a conceptual paper it will address an issue that cannot be answered simply by finding more data and will present arguments that will be grounded in literature and broadly accepted knowledge.
Some basic rules: use the template if it is provided; follow the format; keep to word limits. Use colons to join phrases without extra words. If your abstract is long and rambling the committee may assume your presentation will be too and the session chair will might have to give you the ‘red card’ whether you have finished or not! If they ask you to link to one of the conference themes, be sure to do it. If the conference committee is overwhelmed with abstracts, those that even look like they are ‘off topic’, too long or don’t follow the guidelines may be rejected without even being read. Use references very sparingly in an abstract, generally only to refer to highly relevant published work or to indicate the influence of a significant theorist. You may wish to show your familiarity with the research and literature pertinent to your topic but remember, your main purpose is to get your own ideas across.
Read it again and again and ideally have a colleague check it. Does it make sense and give a clear indication of what you plan to present? Is the focus very clear from the title and the first sentence?
Update#1 : here’s another resource from Pat Thomson’s excellent academic writing blog Patter. This one is about how important the thesis abstract is. Read here.
Update#2 : writing an abstract for a journal article is similar but there are a few other things to think about. Here’s a good short blog post from the LSE Impact blog with some good advice about keywords.