Making an Abstract Less Abstract: Academic Publishing & Writing Tips
Abstracts may be short, but they are far from easy to write and may take a disproportionate amount of time to draft and refine. Their briefness is, in fact, one of the reasons why they tend to prove so challenging. Most academic and scientific articles contain a large amount of complex information and discussion, so trying to summarise that content in a few sentences requires careful selection and a concise style. Moreover, the abstract is an extremely important part of a scholarly article or indeed any academic or scientific document. Often along with the title it is the only part that will be accessible to potential readers who search library catalogues and online journals for research of the kind you have conducted. If your abstract captures their interest, they are likely to read further and perhaps even use and cite your work in their own research. On the other hand, if it is not engaging, they will probably move on to a more promising resource. Your abstract therefore needs to be clear, informative and fascinating – a promise, as it were, of the excellent content and writing that will follow if the reader continues.
One way in which to approach writing an abstract that will win readers’ interest is to work at making your abstract less abstract. Yes, abstract concepts are often the product of sound research, and evidence tends to be used to analyse and understand the trends it represents, so a touch of the abstract can certainly be included in a good abstract. However, there are also entirely grounded procedures, intriguing events and concrete facts in most research papers, and precision in reporting these can not only situate the reader, but also hold considerable interest. For example, an abstract for a paper on catastrophic landslides might focus on seasonal differences, using as its case studies one landslide in each of the four seasons. The abstract would likely explain this, but what if the author’s focus on the categories so important to the study results in his or her neglecting to mention in the abstract the place and year of each catastrophe? Readers looking for information on a particular landslide that is indeed studied in the paper may not be able to find the paper via search engines, and even if they do, they would not be able to determine from the abstract that the paper actually discusses that particular slide.
Overly specialised or technical language is also best avoided in abstracts except in the case of the most specialised of scholarly journals. Such language may seem inherently concrete to you because you are familiar with exactly what it means, but for readers who are less certain of the meaning, such terms will come across as abstract and imprecise, and with some theoretical language, the impression may be accurate. If you must use highly specialised language or discipline-specific jargon or perhaps believe that a particular term will attract readers of the kind you want, be sure also to anticipate readers who may not know the terminology by allowing a little space to define or explain potentially obscure language so that your meaning will be absolutely clear. Otherwise, stick to vocabulary that is as common and concrete as possible.
Abbreviations, particularly the nonstandard kind, should also be avoided in abstracts if at all possible. In some cases, of course, the use of abbreviations will prove necessary in order to observe the word limitations most publisher guidelines set for the length of abstracts, but you will need to weigh the reduction in words you gain thereby against the words it will take to define each nonstandard abbreviation, for such abbreviations will assuredly require definition if you want your audience to understand what you are saying. Pronouns are best avoided for the most part as well. They can be imprecise and confusing, especially when a lot of information is presented in very few words, and since most length restrictions for abstracts are counted in words, there is no reason not to use the noun itself instead of a pronoun, a policy that will promote the concrete clarity desired.
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