The Virtue of Brevity
“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” This famous saying, often paraphrased as it keeps proliferating, has been attributed to so many famous dead people (all male!!) that it evidently captures a kernel of valuable truth. If it wasn’t uttered by Cicero, the famous Roman statesman, the idea most ‘probably’ (only some will get this!!) emanated from French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal, in his 1657 Lettres provinciales (Provincial letters).
The academic abstract is the written equivalent of a 30-second elevator pitch for your PhD thesis. It is your one chance, when researchers are sifting through hits from their initial search terms, to grab their attention and lead them towards your paper and to earn future citations. It is worth the effort and time it takes to make your abstracts powerful and noticeable.
Spoiler alert …
Given the contradictory results from different studies that looked for a correlation between abstract length, the use of complex words, and other factors with the number of citations, the only common cause is that the quality of underlying research is what really matters. The implication? No smoke and mirrors with a sparkling abstract will mask weak research.
What is the purpose of an academic abstract?
All writing tells a story. Abstracts are intended to pique the interest of the potential reader, whether familiar with your topic of research or not. A good abstract should tell the whole story, and highlight the key findings, but the 300-500 words should not reveal the entire paper and rather leave the reader wanting to see the full version.
There are three major kinds of abstracts, namely the Descriptive, the Critical and the Informative.
The Descriptive Abstract simply lays it out as it is. Research question, thesis and method. No results, dramatic conclusions, and no judgements. No points being scored. At around approximately 100 words or so, this is essentially an executive summary acting as a placeholder for your work.
The Critical Abstract could be considered the author grading his or her own work. Not a particularly commonly-used approach, the author uses the abstract to evaluate how thorough, representative, valid and impactful this research is, often compared to well-known studies in the field. Authors lean towards the upper limit of Editors’ word count guidelines as there is a lot of ground to cover.
The Informative Abstract is by far the most popular form, and true to its name, lays out all the salient elements of the main manuscript. Because authors will include their results and recommendations, a good Informative abstract could arguably stand on its own legs in telling a useful account of your research story. Think of it like Peter and the Wolf without the instrumental interludes. When your Editor or Professor asks you to write an abstract without specifying what form, this is the default.
One should not be too prescriptive over which of these forms to use, as the author’s purpose and the context of the discourse it joins may point towards different forms at different times.
What to include in your academic abstract?
You are a researcher yourself. Be the guinea pig and ask yourself what logic you would apply when scanning through search results. At a minimum, one should expect to find a well-crafted academic journal article had included the following elements, and the abstract reflects the same:
A statement on the research questions and why it is an important question to address in light of past and concurrent research in the field.
Affirmation that the author knows the depth and width of issues in the field and has accurately identified an interesting gap that could shift a body of work.
An indication that the chosen research methodology is the most appropriate and that the publishing academic has a firm grasp of the preferred approach, whether empirical or theoretical. The manuscript will later validate the data itself.
Clearly defined problem statement, results and an analysis of their implications.
And finally, the modesty to disclose perceived shortcomings, limitations and the opportunity for future exploration.
It is a skill to reduce all of that to 300 words and hit the keywords and findings to attract the right attention. Start with the introductions and conclusions of each section or chapter, as you have already done the hard lifting with this summary process.
What to not to include in your abstract
Academic writing researchers and teachers urge scholars to not repeat popular mistakes. High on the list of red flags are:
Lengthy background or information on the context. In fact, anything lengthy should be disqualified. Use short sentences and one idea per sentence.
Redundant phrases, unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, and repetitive information. However, some study results point the other direction. Important is to understand that librarians and other use indexing of key terms so make sure your abstract contains terms that will run the SEO mile.
Acronyms and abbreviations may be familiar to closer peers, yet remember, you also want to reach readers not yet familiar with your research or field.
This is not the place for references to other literature. Have you ever seen an abstract with footnotes? Instead, say something like, “current research shows that …” or “studies have indicated …”.
The use of ellipticals … See what it does?
Any sort of image, illustration, figure, or table, or references to them. A research abstract usually is one dense paragraph with little white space. You are really at the 10,000-foot level here, while the particulars contained in tables, figures and more will wait their turn until the entire manuscript is read.
A final checklist to make sure your abstract is on track
Regardless of how skilled a writer you are, developing an abstract is quite the antithesis of all you hold dear as an academic: writing that is typically thorough, comprehensive and comprehensible while filling in each step in the flow of logic. The truth is that you may have no more than ten short sentences to make sure you have a brief summary of each of the following elements:
- Why people should care about the problem your research targeted and,
- Why do the results matter?
- Describing the problem statement you addressed and the scope of what you included or excluded.
- Your research approach and methodology.
- What your results show or, asked differently, what was the answer?
- The implications of your results. Ground-breaking or incremental, and specific or generalisable?
It has been a long process with much sacrifice and anxiety for many to get to a point where an abstract comes into play. The study of economics teaches us that everything that matters in life happens in the margin. Complete this step of writing a good abstract with the extra vigour it takes to do justice to all you have endured.
If you are looking for a publishing partner to help you take your manuscript to the next level, then please click here to get in touch with us, we’d love to see how we can help.
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