I. Types of Abstracts
To begin, you need to determine which type of abstract you should include with your paper. There are four general types.
A critical abstract provides, in addition to describing main findings and information, a judgement or comment about the study’s validity, reliability, or completeness. The researcher evaluates the paper and often compares it with other works on the same subject. Critical abstracts are generally 400-500 words in length due to the additional interpretive commentary. These types of abstracts are used infrequently.
A descriptive abstract indicates the type of information found in the work. It makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. It does incorporate key words found in the text and may include the purpose, methods, and scope of the research. Essentially, the descriptive abstract only describes the work being summarized. Some researchers consider it an outline of the work, rather than a summary. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short, 100 words or less.
The majority of abstracts are informative. While they still do not critique or evaluate a work, they do more than describe it. A good informative abstract acts as a surrogate for the work itself. That is, the researcher presents and explains all the main arguments and the important results and evidence in the paper. An informative abstract includes the information that can be found in a descriptive abstract [purpose, methods, scope] but it also includes the results and conclusions of the research and the recommendations of the author. The length varies according to discipline, but an informative abstract is usually no more than 300 words in length.
A highlight abstract is specifcally written to attract the reader’s attention to the study. No pretence is made of there being either a balanced or complete picture of the paper and, in fact, incomplete and leading remarks may be used to spark the reader’s interest. In that a highlight abstract cannot stand independent of its associated article, it is not a true abstract and, therefore, rarely used in academic writing.
II. Writing Style
Use the active voice when possible, but note that much of your abstract may require passive sentence constructions. Regardless, write your abstract using concise, but complete, sentences. Get to the point quickly and always use the past tense because you are reporting on research that has been completed.
Although it is the first section of your paper, the abstract, by definition, should be written last since it will summarize the contents of your entire paper. To begin composing your abstract, take whole sentences or key phrases from each section and put them in a sequence that summarizes the paper. Then revise or add connecting phrases or words to make it cohensive and clear. Before handing in your final paper, check to make sure that the information in the abstract completely agrees with what your have written in the paper.
The abstract SHOULD NOT contain:
- Lengthy background information,
- References to other literature [say something like, "current research shows that..." or "studies have indicated..."],
- Using ellipticals [i.e., ending with "..."] or incomplete sentences,
- Abbreviations, jargon, or terms that may be confusing to the reader, and
- Any sort of image, illustration, figure, or table, or references to them.
Abstract. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Abstract. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Abstracts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Borko, Harold and Seymour Chatman. "Criteria for Acceptable Abstracts: A Survey of Abstracters' Instructions." American Documentation 14 (April 1963): 149-160; Abstracts. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Hartley, James and Lucy Betts. "Common Weaknesses in Traditional Abstracts in hte Social Sciences." Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60 (October 2009): 2010-2018; Procter, Margaret. The Abstract. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing Report Abstracts. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Abstracts. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Koltay, Tibor. Abstracts and Abstracting: A Genre and Set of Skills for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford, UK: 2010
Do you want to know what an abstract must contain?
You’ll discover that right now. But first, it’s not every time you’ve got to write an abstract. If you’re not sure whether you need it for your essay entry or not, read this first: When Should You Write – Or Not Write – An Abstract?
Basically, an abstract contains – or should contain – four elements: a statement of problem, the research methodology, the immediate result and the conclusion.
I have reduced these into four simple questions for ease of application.
- Why did you start?
- What did you do?
- What did you find?
- What does it (your finding) mean?
Each of these is x-rayed below in turn.
#1: Statement of Problem
This identifies the problem and why we should care about it. Did you write in response to growing youth unemployment, the global fight against polio or the rising wave of terrorism?
Africa has a large youthful population with half of its citizens less than 20 years. However, the youth play little or no significant roles in nation building and Africa’s political development with the average age of the African head of state being 62 years.
Ultimately, this element answers the question, “Why did you start?”
#2: Methodology or Approach
This is where you state the approach to your research: what you did, where you sourced your materials or how you addressed the problem. Did you analyze the views of two schools of thought, interview 12 rape victims, draw from personal experiences, study 7 historical records or conduct an experiment?
You’ll also state whether you approached the subject using a specific theoretical framework, technical procedure, or methodology. Did you adopt a universal, comparative, scientific, African, Islamic, cultural, or legal perspective in analyzing the issues?
This essay examines Africa’s gerontocratic political set up and utilizes data from local and international researches and personal experiences to diagnose the causes of the situation with Nigeria as a case study.
This answers the query, “What did you do?”
#3: Immediate Results or Findings
This is a statement of what you learnt, discovered or created as a result of completing the above procedure, investigation or analysis. Did you discover that some religions support cremation? Did you find that failing family values, poverty and low budgetary allocation are the causes of dwindling standard of the Nigerian education system?
It is found that gross lack of youth empowerment schemes, absence of leadership training and an inordinate desire of the ruling class to hold onto power are factors hindering effective youth participation in the political process.
So this answers the question, “What did you find?”
This is usually a single sentence stating the larger implication of the research, predicting a consequence or summarizing the recommendations. Is the problem of global warming likely to escalate by 40% in the next five years? Are you suggesting amnesty or military crackdown as the panacea to insurgency?
It is recommended that Africa engages her youth as active stakeholders in the political process through education, political sponsorship and fixing a compulsory retirement age for political leaders.
This element addresses the question, “What does it (your finding in #3) mean?”
Now we have an abstract
From the examples I’ve given, the final abstract on the topic, African youth, political renaissance and nation building, will be:
Africa has a large youthful population with half of its citizens less than 20 years. However, the youth play little or no significant roles in nation building and Africa’s political development with the average age of the African head of state being 62 years. This essay examines Africa’s gerontocratic political set up and utilizes data from local and international researches and personal experiences to diagnose the causes of the situation with Nigeria as a case study. It is found that gross lack of youth empowerment schemes, absence of leadership training and an inordinate desire of the ruling class to hold onto power are factors hindering effective youth participation in the political process. It is recommended that Africa engages her youth as active stakeholders in the political process through education, political sponsorship and fixing a compulsory retirement age for political leaders.
Each of the four questions is answered very briefly in 1 or 2 sentences with much of the details omitted.
Types of abstracts
Note that there are two types of abstracts:
- The descriptive abstract which merely answers the first two questions; and
- The informative abstract which answers all the four questions.
Hence, the informative abstract is usually longer, more detailed and more widely used. It’s the type I personally use and recommend.
What next now?
You can write down the four questions somewhere so you’ll always remember and apply them. Next week, God willing, we’ll be looking at what an abstract is not … the contents and formats your abstract shouldn’t feature. Miss it, miss out!
What do you think?
Your comments are welcome. You can also comment with a topic of your choice and a sample abstract, and I’ll help you critique it for FREE.