I’ve been editing some student abstracts for up coming meetings, and thought this was a good time to remind everyone what makes a good abstract.
The problem most people have is that they want to say EVERYTHING in the abstract. When you are too intimate with you research, you tend to put a little too much detail (e.g., term descriptions, extensive background, statistics…) into the abstract. However, it should be simple and just give the a good idea as to what the research is about and how it contributes to the field.
Therefore, a basic abstract should flow as follows (color after refers to example):
1) Summary of your topic, and why it is important (yellow)
2) Basic theoretical issue / hypothesis (red)
3) Brief description methods (green)
4) Main results (description, NOT stats) <- for conference and empirical. (blue)
5) General conclusion (purple)
Downing, PE. 2000. Interactions between visual working memory and selective attention. Psychol Sci. 11(6):467-73.
Ok, someone out there is yelling at me saying, “Stats and [some other numerical data such as drug dosage] are important!!”. If you are writing an empirical abstract and have the room, go for it. Giving some numerical detail can really help poor souls with out access to your entire article, but remember if you are word limited, they are probably the first things that should go.
If you are writing a grant abstract this will change a little, because you don’t have results or conclusions. Instead you should state for point 4 what is innovative and/or significant about the research. In a grant point 5 should conclude the abstract with a statement on how the research will advance the field and/or what future research success with this research will support.
*** Writing Block Tip *** IF you are still having problems, enlist the help of a friend. Describe you study to them, have them take notes of what they feel are the key points. You will find that they will write down basically what is outlined above, and you can take these notes – clean them up – and TA DA you have an abstract.
Most conference abstracts had VERY short word restrictions, so following these guidelines should help you. They will also help you write a very direct grant or empirical paper abstract.
April 10, 2012 edit — Do make sure to look up any particular requirement by a conference, journal, or granting agency. Some do require that you do blatantly stick in words to mark parts (e.g., PURPOSE, METHODS, RESULTS, and CONCLUSION). I think this is kind of silly, but this is one way editors have compensated to get what they want in an abstract.