How to write an abstract
An abstract is a short summary of a longer work (such as a dissertation or research paper). The abstract concisely reports the aims and outcomes of your research so that readers know exactly what the paper is about.
Write the abstract at the very end, when you’ve completed the rest of the text. There are four things you need to include:
An abstract is usually around 150–300 words, but there’s often a strict word limit, so make sure to check the requirements of the university or journal.
Hover over the different parts of the abstract to see how it is constructed.
When to write an abstract
In all cases, the abstract is the very last thing you write. It should be a completely independent, self-contained text, not an excerpt copied from your paper or dissertation. An abstract should be fully understandable on its own to someone who hasn’t read your full paper or related sources.
The easiest approach to writing an abstract is to imitate the structure of the larger work—think of it as a miniature version of your dissertation or research paper. In most cases, this means the abstract should contain four key elements.
You can include some brief context on the social or academic relevance of your topic, but don’t go into detailed background information.
After identifying the problem, state the objective of your research. Use verbs like investigate, test, analyze or evaluate to describe exactly what you set out to do.
This part of the abstract can be written in the present or past simple tense, but should never refer to the future, as the research is already complete.
- This study will investigate the relationship between coffee consumption and productivity.
- This study investigates the relationship between coffee consumption and productivity.
Next, indicate the research methods that you used to answer your question. This part should be a straightforward description of what you did in one or two sentences. It is usually written in the past simple tense as it refers to completed actions.
- Structured interviews will be conducted with 25 participants.
- Structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants.
Don’t evaluate validity or obstacles here—the goal is not to give an account of the methodology’s strengths and weaknesses, but to give the reader a quick insight into the overall approach and procedures you used.
Next, summarize the main research results. This part of the abstract can be in the present or past simple tense.
- Our analysis has shown a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
- Our analysis shows a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
- Our analysis showed a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
Depending on how long and complex your research is, you may not be able to include all results here. Try to highlight only the most important findings that will allow the reader to understand your conclusions.
Finally, state the main conclusions of your research: what is your answer to the problem or question? The reader should finish with a clear understanding of the central point that your research has proved or argued. Conclusions are usually written in the present simple tense.
- We concluded that coffee consumption increases productivity.
- We conclude that coffee consumption increases productivity.
If there are important limitations to your research (for example, related to your sample size or methods), you should mention them briefly in the abstract. This allows the reader to accurately assess the credibility and generalizability of your research.
If your aim was to solve a practical problem, the conclusions might include recommendations for implementation. If relevant, you can briefly make suggestions for further research.
If your paper will be published, you might have to add a list of keywords at the end of the abstract. These keywords should reference the most important elements of the research to help potential readers find your paper during their own literature searches.
Tips for writing an abstract
It can be a real challenge to condense your whole dissertation into just a couple of hundred words, but the abstract will be the first (and sometimes only) part that people read, so it’s important to get it right. These strategies can help you get started.
Not all abstracts will contain precisely the same elements. If your research has a different structure (for example, a humanities dissertation that builds an argument through thematic chapters), you can write your abstract through a process of reverse outlining.
For each chapter or section, list keywords and draft 1-2 sentences that summarize the central point or argument. This will give you a framework of your abstract’s structure. Next, revise the sentences to make connections and show how the argument develops.
The abstract should tell a condensed version of the whole story, and it should only include information that can be found in the main text. Reread your abstract to make sure it gives a clear summary of your overall argument.
Read other abstracts
The best way to learn the conventions of writing an abstract in your discipline is to read other people’s. You probably already read lots of journal article abstracts while conducting your literature review—try using them as a framework for structure and style.
You can also find lots of dissertation abstract examples in thesis and dissertation databases.
Write clearly and concisely
A good abstract is short but impactful, so make sure every word counts. Each sentence should clearly communicate one main point.
Avoid unnecessary filler words, and avoid obscure jargon—the abstract should be understandable to readers who are not familiar with your topic.
If you’re struggling to edit down to the required length, read our guide to shortening an abstract.
Focus on your own research
The purpose of the abstract is to report the original contributions of your research, so avoid discussion of others’ work, even if you address it at length in the main text.
You might include a sentence or two summarizing the scholarly background to situate your research and show its relevance to a broader debate, but there’s no need to mention specific publications. Don’t include citations in an abstract unless absolutely necessary (for example, if your research responds directly to another study or revolves around one key theorist).
Check your formatting
If you are writing a thesis or dissertation or submitting to a journal, there are often specific formatting requirements for the abstract—make sure to check the guidelines and format your work correctly. For APA research papers you can follow the APA abstract format.
Always stick to the word limit. If you have not been given any guidelines on the length of the abstract, write no more than one double-spaced page.
Frequently asked questions about abstracts
- What is the purpose of an abstract?
- To help potential readers determine the relevance of your paper for their own research.
- To communicate your key findings to those who don’t have time to read the whole paper.
Abstracts are often indexed along with keywords on academic databases, so they make your work more easily findable. Since the abstract is the first thing any reader sees, it’s important that it clearly and accurately summarizes the contents of your paper.
- How long is a dissertation abstract?
- When should I write the abstract?
- Can you cite sources in an abstract?
- The abstract should focus on your original research, not on the work of others.
- The abstract should be self-contained and fully understandable without reference to other sources.
There are some circumstances where you might need to mention other sources in an abstract: for example, if your research responds directly to another study or focuses on the work of a single theorist. In general, though, don’t include citations unless absolutely necessary.
- Where does the abstract go in a thesis or dissertation?