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THE USES OF ABSTRACTS
People who write regularly in business, industry, technology, medicine, or the academic profession learn to write abstracts early in their careers because the abstract is an essential part of the communication system in their field. A good abstract summarizes an article or report so succinctly and accurately that readers can quickly infer from the abstract the essential content of the longer work. Ideally, an abstract should have the same relationship to an article or report that an architect's model of a building has to the completed building. Just as one should be able to tell from an architect's model what a building is going to look like, one should be able to tell from an abstract what a report is going to say. And both the model and the abstract should be self-contained units, independent miniatures that make sense even when separated from the piece they represent.
Abstracts are important because they can serve both writers and readers in a number of different ways. First, a writer can draft a preliminary abstract of a paper as a way of beginning to think about the topic and as a device for organizing those ideas. This kind of abstract is preliminary and flexible, more like a working sketch for a building than like a model, and usually it will be substantially revised or discarded altogether when the paper is completed.
Second, a person may write an abstract that is a kind of promissory note to a program chairman or an editor. In this kind of abstract the writer sketches out the paper or report he or she plans to write and submits it for consideration. If the editor or chairman thinks the projected piece of writing is worth publishing or presenting, and if the person submitting the abstract has good credentials for writing such a piece, the abstract may be accepted, and the writer is then committed to produce the paper. People who submit abstracts of this kind must follow them faithfully when they write their final paper because they have made a contract on the basis of the abstract.
People who will be working in fields in which one earns rewards by publishing or presenting papers should master the art of writing these promissory abstracts as part of their professional training. For one thing, you can often meet a deadline for papers or program proposals if you can submit an abstract by the deadline rather than a completed paper. Second, once an editor, or program chairman accepts your proposal on the basis of an abstract, you have made a commitment and established a deadline that will force you to write the paper. Many of us need that kind of motivation.
Abstracts written after a report has been completed can also serve several purposes. First, they may appear at the beginning of a report and function as a kind of preview that lets the reader know what to expect; this is particularly useful for long reports. Second, they can serve as a summary that will give an administrator or executive necessary information in a capsule form. Third, the abstract can consult it quickly. It could also appear in the program for a professional meeting to help participants decide if they want to hear the full paper, or it could be published in a journal or catalog of abstracts so that people searching for material on the topic could determine whether they want to read the full-length paper.
Since an abstract serves so many functions, you can see why it is so important that it be well written. One authority claims that it is the most important part of a paper:
The first significant impression of your report is formed on the reader's mind by the abstract; and the sympathy with which it is read, if it is read at all, is often determined by this first impression.
WRITING THE ABSTRACT
Good abstracts are hard to write because they must accurately compress so much information into compact form, and because they should be written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Moreover, your method of writing an abstract will differ when you are writing a promissory abstract and when you are writing a summary abstract. The first is creative, the second analytical.
WRITING THE PROMISSORY ABSTRACT
When you are writing a promissory abstract, you need to go through a process similar to the one you use at the preparatory stages of writing a paper. First write down the main idea or thesis that you want to present; then brainstorm and take notes on all the possible points you might want to make about that thesis. On a new page jot down sources and examples that you might use to illustrate your thesis. Finally, you might write down why you think the paper you propose is worth presenting or why an audience would be interested in reading or listening to what you have to say.
Then, beginning either with a statement of your main idea or a listing of the main evidence on which you base your thesis, write a first draft that answers these questions: What are you going to say? Who needs to know it or what is the information good for?
Don't worry too much about length on this first draft. Get down as much information as you think the program chairman or editor needs in order to make a judgement about the paper. You can trim it to size later. In the second and third drafts cut if necessary, and simplify and polish your writing because this abstract will not only represent the content of your paper but will also be a sample of your prose style. You can present your credentials for giving the paper on a separate sheet or in a letter.
Here is a sample of a promissory abstract that I turned in for a conference:
The program chairman accepted the paper, and four months later I wrote it.
WRITING THE SUMMARY ABSTRACT
In writing a summary abstract, you need to start by carefully rereading your paper and underlining the main points. Write brief summaries of each section in the margins as you would if you were studying for an exam on the paper; star the most important points you make. Then make a rough outline of the paper so that you see your plan of development at a glance; you may realize, for instance, that although you spent twice as long developing point one as you did in developing point two, the points are equally important and you do not need to give twice as much space to point one in the abstract. It is because of concerns of this kind that you should not try to write an abstract by stringing together sentences that summarize each paragraph.
One way to write an analytical abstract would be to put down the most important idea in your paper in the first sentence and in two or three sentences develop that idea. Then decide how you arrived at your thesis, giving specific details if it seems useful. Finally, summarize the implications of your thesis or hypothesize about what its values might be. Another approach might be to begin by stating the problem you are writing about, then describe the approach you used to work on it, and finally give your results. And there are other ways to write an abstract. You do not have to organize abstracts in the same way that you organize your papers, but that method may be easier when you first start to write them.
As you write the abstract, think of the audience that may read it. Use terminology that an intelligent nonspecialist could understand and try to make your summary so complete that someone outside your field could understand what you are talking about. Keep reminding yourself that this abstract should be a self-contained piece of writing that can stand on its own when it is separated from the paper it represents. And when it is separated, it represents your thoughts, so you want it to be an intelligible, cohesive piece of writing.
For example, here is how a summary abstract of the proposal for a university day-care center might look:
Although one might think that the length of a finished paper would control the length of the abstract that represents it, such is not usually the case. More often, directions will say that abstracts should not exceed 250 words; that is, one double-spaced page typed in pica type. If the directions say "no more than one page" rather than giving the number of words, you can squeeze in another fifty words by using elite type. It is probably best not to single-space an abstract.
When you begin writing abstracts you will continually face a conflict between keeping the abstract short enough and putting in everything that you think should be included. Inevitably you compromise and your abstracts will never come as close to being perfect miniature reports as you would like. Neither do anyone else's. But as you continue to write them and to realize what a necessary professional tool they are, you will develop an instinct about what to include in an abstract, and your task will gradually become easier.
- 2023 Timothy G. Roufs — All rights reserved
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