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How to write an abstract in 30 minutes

Have you ever been in the following situation?

You have selected a conference you would like to attend, and you have all the information you need for writing the abstract (the conference topic which suits your work, the maximum amount of words, submission through a website or email). Maybe you’ve googled “How to write an abstract”. And there you are, with a new Word document and a scary white page in front of you. You go and get a cup of coffee, and stare at the screen. You play around with some words to come up with a good title which is within the maximum amount of characters allowed. You go and get another cup of coffee. Check Facebook. Get a snack… And before you know a few hours have gone by and Word is still showing an almost empty screen.

I’ve found what really works for me to write an abstract in roughly 30 minutes. As I was googling “How to write an abstract” in the past, I came across this article by Philip Koopman which caught my attention.

What I most like about this website is the questions it has in the different sections your abstract should contain:

Motivation: Why do we care about the problem and the results?

Problem statement: What problem are you trying to solve?

Approach: How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction, or analysis of field data for an actual product?

Results: What’s the answer?

Conclusions: What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant “win”, be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful)?

In fact, whenever I now write an abstract, I simply copy and paste these questions into a new document. Then I start answering them one by one. Sometimes I just talk out loud and write it down. Style and grammar don’t matter to me at that point – I just need to get the ideas out first.
These answers then make up the first draft of my abstract. I simply delete the questions, and print out this first version. At that point, I start manipulating the abstract into a readable text, in correct English (as good as possible in my case), and making sure the entire piece flows from its starting point and background description towards the results and conclusions.

Do you have a method which helps you to write abstracts?

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This Post Has 52 Comments
  1. That's brilliant. I'm certainly going to do that the next time I need to write an abstract. My method at the moment is a mixture of staring at a blank screen and copying bits from old abstracts!

  2. That approach sounds familiar. Have been taught the same at Tech, and it works for me. Another approach would just be to have someone else write the abstract. Haven't figured out yet how to get there, tough ;-).

  3. I am one of those people who take forever to write an abstract. I am definitely going to use this technique the next time I have one to do πŸ™‚

  4. wow, it definitely helped me a lot when I was coming to write a talk abstract for a conference. I have stared my screen for nearly 3 hours with a blank text file…Thanks a lot and thumb up!

  5. I just discovered your site yesterday and in a half hour I wrote an abstract to meet a submission deadline. Great post!

  6. What if the university asks you to send a writeup before you start research? In such cases what should we write?Deepa

  7. The research supervisor wanted an \”abstract\” of what my topic is going to be. I was under the assumption that abstract is written after completion of research, but now I am at a loss. May be she means a statement of purpose. A detailed research plan will not be possible at the absolute beginning,right?

  8. Any guideline of how many words that will be? Did you already discuss which methods you will use, and the outcomes you hope to achieve?I do write abstracts for papers before having finished the research, because I know the whole process takes time and I don't want to present 2-year-old work at a conference.

  9. When you write abstracts for papers before research, how can you be absolutely sure what your outcome will be ? My topic is very general at this point – I mean, the exact research problem has not been identified. It'll take a few more reading and contemplating sessions.Thanks for taking time to respond,Eva. Deepa

  10. I typically don't state an outcome as \”an increase in capacity with XX% is found\”, but I write it as \”the increased capacity is quantified based on (whatever I need to do)\”. Hope that helps, Deepa!

  11. Eva, my Ph.D supervisors were raising a number of issues regarding my abstract. I have just borrowed form your idea and all the word economics and precision seem to work. Thanks. Ernest

  12. This is a brilliant idea. I have been agonising over a Phd abstact for days and tried this as a last resort and wrote an abstract in 30 minutes. Thank you!

  13. when I write an abstract, I begin with the general and specific objective of my research. then I go on to the research design and tools that i used.Next, I mention the major findings and results and finally the conclusions

  14. Really powerful. Both approaches work, since motivation can be seen as general objectives, problem statement as specific objectives, approach as research design and tools, results as major findings & results, and obviously, conclusions as…conclusions.

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