How to Write an Effective Journal Abstract

What’s in an Abstract?

The abstract is the single most important paragraph in your entire article. It is the first―and often the only―thing that readers will see before deciding whether it is worth their time to read the full article. Unfortunately, many treat it as an afterthought, not realizing that a poorly written abstract is bound to put off peer reviewers and readers alike: just as a good abstract is usually the mark of a good article, so will a bad abstract often point toward an uninspiring read. Think of it as an elevator pitch instead: you have about 200 words, or two minutes, to describe the what, why and how of your research to an audience that may or may not be familiar with your field of work. Be persuasive. Keep it short, clear, to the point and jargon-free. In a word, make it powerful.

The abstract is a summary of your article and it must make sense all by itself, so it’s best to write it last, once you have all the other sections drafted and a clear picture of what your article really is about. Its format and length will vary according to discipline and journal guidelines, but all successful, impactful abstracts share some key elements: they have a compelling argument and they state it clearly and concisely. Above all, they give prospective readers enough information to decide whether they want to read your article in further detail.

Abstracts are mainly of two types, descriptive and informative, each with different aims and hence different components and styles. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short—100 words or less. Most abstracts are informative and include all necessary information about your purpose, methods, scope, results and conclusions.

And they can do a lot more than describe your article. A well-written <200-word informative abstract can be your most powerful tool. It can lead to more people reading and citing your article!

DOs

Do present complex arguments as clearly and accurately as possible.

Revise and polish every sentence.

Do write in plain English and make sure your abstract is understandable to a wider audience and to scholars outside of your discipline.

Steer clear of jargon. There are no bonus points for arcane words. Quite the contrary.

Do incorporate keywords that capture the main ideas in your article and quickly pinpoint the content and focus of your work. Think of phrases and keywords that people might enter into a search engine and make sure they appear in your abstract. Some journals request a list of keywords, both as a way to make index searches easier and to assign articles to discipline-specific review committees or editors.

Choose meaningful and powerful words. Every word counts.

Do stay within the word count limit. It’s important.

Do cover all the essential elements of the full-length article.

Revise, edit, and then revise some more.

DON’Ts

Don’t waste valuable space with trite, tired words and clichés. Cut to the chase and go straight to the point. There are far more effective opening statements than “This article is dedicated to,” and you don’t want to lose readers at the first sentence.

Do not use long and overly complicated sentences. Unlike other languages, such as Italian, English favors short sentences over long ones and active voice over passive. Use verbs instead of their noun equivalents (e.g., use “analyze” rather than “an analysis of”). Remember that each language works differently and reflects different cultural norms. You must change your style when writing in English.

Do not add information that is not included in the article. The abstract should highlight only what you’ve researched and not go beyond its scope.

Do not refer extensively to other works. And if you feel the need to cite other sources, remember that it’s usually inappropriate to do so in an abstract.

Do not include too many acronyms or unusual abbreviations.

Don’t use adjectives such as “crucial,” “important,” “valuable” and the like to describe your research. It’s always best to let the readers and peer reviewers decide for themselves.

 

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