In January 2009, PhD Comics published a funny abstract template (Mad Libs for the busy researcher). It’s good for some laughs, though you might wonder if your own research abstract is any better.
Your research abstract is people’s first impression of your work. It has to engage them and give them a reason to keep reading. At the same time, it has to stand alone; even if people stop at the abstract, they still need to get a clear idea about the questions your research addresses and the main findings.
A poorly written abstract can obscure your important or interesting findings, discourage other people from looking more closely at your work, and decrease your chances of getting published and cited.
Why is your research abstract poorly written? The following are six possible reasons:
- It’s an afterthought. After all the hard work on your paper, you don’t give much thought to your abstract. You just want to get it over with.
- It’s vague. Your abstract should clearly and succinctly explain the point of your paper and its key findings, not drop hints about your work.
- It’s unbalanced. You devote too much space to one section of your abstract (say, the methods) and leave too little room for anything else. Even if you have good reason for devoting more words to one section (such as the fact that your methods are innovative), you can’t shortchange the other sections entirely.
- It’s long-winded. Rambling sentences and general verbiage weaken your paper as a whole, and they can ruin your abstract.
- It’s incoherent. Your abstract needs to present an argument or a thought process that readers can follow from the start to the conclusion. If you haven’t presented your reasoning clearly, and if parts of the abstract don’t relate to each other in a way that makes sense, your readers won’t know what to make of your work.
- It’s dull. Even exciting research can be rendered boring by a poorly written research abstract. It plods along, clotted with jargon, repetitive sentence structure, and extensive use of passive voice.
What are some ways to improve your research abstract?
Make a note of abstracts that read well, and ask yourself why they’re engaging and well-written. Review high-quality online resources (for example, this article offers a checklist that might help you improve your abstract).
You can also work with a professional writer to help ensure that you’re writing up your research with coherence and clarity.