Writing an abstract

Academic, scientific or medical papers all make use of an abstract to summarise the work. This allows an interested reader to get a feel for the paper, and perhaps holds the key to whether the work meets their interest or purpose. So, despite being the smallest section of a dissertation, thesis or journal article, writing an abstract is a vital stage that should serve to draw the reader in.


writing an abstract

It is essential that you check the guidelines of your institution, faculty, dissertation manual or journal before writing an abstract, as there may be specific requirements that you will have to meet. These could include a maximum or minimum word count, maximum length (e.g. no more than one page), content (what should or should not feature) and formatting guidelines (e.g. justified, single line spacing).

Type of abstract

When writing an abstract there are two principal styles: informational or descriptive. Both of these function as an introduction to and a summary of the work, but the key difference is that while informational abstracts do include the results, conclusions and recommendations, descriptive abstracts do not include this information, which is essentially the outcome of the work. Most undergraduate and postgraduate abstracts follow the informational style, but do check first.

Components of an abstract

Here is a table outlining a four paragraph abstract that follows the informational style, and thus includes the outcomes of the study:

ComponentPossible source
Paragraph 1:
What was the purpose of the study?
Statement of your aims, context, identified gaps in knowledge, research questions.
Paragraph 2:
How was the study designed?
Research design, methodology and methods chapter, paradigms, brief explanation of the conceptual framework and assumptions.
Paragraph 3:
What were the findings?
Chapters that present the findings, analysis and discussion.
Paragraph 4:
What were the conclusions?
Conclusion and recommendations chapter, as well as those sections that address the contribution to knowledge and generalisability.

(Adapted from Trafford & Lesham (2008) ‘Stepping Stones to Achieving your Doctorate’. Maidenhead: OUP, p.151)

How will readers find your work?

The final function of the abstract is to include indexing data so that interested parties can locate your work once it is published and/or archived in an institutional database. To achieve this you will need to include key words or key phrases that can steer people towards your work. Choose these key words and phrases carefully.

What should be excluded when writing an abstract?

You should not include any tables or figures in the abstract, and only use pure text and numerical data to summarise your study. Regarding the use of abbreviations in your abstract, check your institution/referencing/journal guidelines, and remember that if you do include abbreviations, define them in full on first usage.