How to write an abstract

An abstract is a short summary of a larger work, such as a dissertation or research paper. It allows potential readers to quickly identify what your paper is about and decide if it’s worth reading. All abstracts should include:

The abstract appears at the very beginning of a document, but it should be the last thing you write. In a dissertation or thesis, include it on a separate page, after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents.

Most abstracts are around 150-300 words, but the length depends on the requirements of your assignmentoften you will be given a strict word limit.

Abstract example

Environmental non-profit organizations in the UK currently face a significant funding gap. Research has shown that donation intention is influenced by campaign messaging strategies, and that representations of individual victims are generally more effective than appeals based on abstract concepts like climate change. This study aims to determine how environmental organizations can target fundraising campaigns to increase donations. Building on existing work on targeted fundraising, it asks: To what extent does a potential donor's social distance from climate change victims in fundraising campaigns affect their intention to make a donation?In this context, social distance is defined as the extent to which people feel they are in the same social group (in-group) or another social group (out-group) in relation to climate change victims.

Based on a review of the literature on donation intention and theories of social distance, an online survey was distributed to potential donors based across the UK. Respondents were randomly divided into two conditions (large and small social distance) and asked to respond to one of two sets of fundraising material. Analysis of the responses demonstrated that large social distance was associated with stronger donation intentions than small social distance.The results indicate that social distance does have an impact on donation intention. On this basis, it is recommended that environmental organizations use social distance as a key factor in designing and targeting their campaigns. Further research is needed to identify other factors that could strengthen the effectiveness of these campaigns.

When to write an abstract

You will almost always have to include an abstract when writing a thesis, dissertation, research paper, or submitting an article to an academic journal.

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. The purpose of the abstract is to report the main aims and outcomes of your research, and it 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 workthink of it as a miniature version of your dissertation or research paper. In most cases, this means the abstract should contain the following key elements.

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Topic and aims

Start by clearly defining the purpose of your research. Depending on the type of research, this might be formulated in one or more of the following ways:

You can also include some brief context on the social or academic relevance of your topic, but don’t go into detailed background information.

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.

Methodology

Once you have established the central aims of your paper or dissertation, indicate the methods that you used to achieve them. 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.

  • Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with 25 participants.
  • Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants.

Don’t evaluate validity or obstacles herethe 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.

Results

Next, summarize the main research results. This part of the abstract can be in the present or past simple tense.

  • Analysis of the responses has shown that there is a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
  • Analysis of the responses shows that there is a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
  • Analysis of the responses showed that there was a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.

Depending on how long and complex your research is, you might 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.

Conclusion

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.

  • Based on these results, we concluded that coffee consumption increases productivity.
  • Based on these results, 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.

Keywords

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.

Be aware that some publication manuals, such as APA Style, have specific formatting requirements for these keywords.

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.

Reverse outline

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 that requires explanationthe 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, it’s best not to write more than one page.

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Shona McCombes

Shona has a bachelor's and two master's degrees, so she's an expert at writing a great thesis. She has also worked as an editor and teacher, working with students at all different levels to improve their academic writing.

7 comments

Dhatri
October 10, 2019 at 2:07 PM

Thank you Scriber Team,

I got clear idea of how to write hypotheses.Tons of Thank you

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Jess
April 18, 2019 at 10:20 PM

Thank you so much for this! Helped me write my abstract for my dissertation!

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Vinothini.I
March 28, 2019 at 4:08 AM

I should offer my gratitude to you. I got a clear picture of my need. Thanks a lot madam. God bless you.

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mary
March 14, 2019 at 9:32 AM

How do i write a standardized thesis on early childhood education without being criticized of plagiarism? When actually one has to work with other people's work and idea.

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Raimo Streefkerk
Raimo Streefkerk (Scribbr-team)
March 14, 2019 at 4:34 PM

Hi Mary,

Thanks for your question! I understand your concerns about committing plagiarism.
Just know that you can always use and build upon the research of others. However, it is important that you cite all the sources you paraphrase, quote or summarize.

I hope this helps!

Cheers,
Raimo

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Nimrod
October 31, 2019 at 9:19 PM

Hello. In addition to Mary's question, on what percentage should one cite, quote, summarise and paraphrase other sources. In other words, isn't there a point where it's overdone and the percentage at which the new words in the research is very low. Would that be considered to be original? Coz most of the things are always already written about. Thanks.

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Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
November 4, 2019 at 2:34 PM

Hi Nimrod,

An original paper doesn't only quote, paraphrase and summarize other sources, but also adds your own analysis, ideas, or data. That means it's not so much about the percentage of your paper that uses other sources - it's more about how you use them. For example, you might combine different sources in a new way to make your own argument about the topic, evaluate which sources provide the most convincing conclusions, or build on previous research by collecting original data. The best way to start is by identifying a specific research problem, and focus on how your sources can help you address that problem.

Hope that helps!

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