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:

  1. Your research problem and objectives
  2. Your methods
  3. Your key results or arguments
  4. Your conclusion

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.

In a dissertation or thesis, include the abstract on a separate page, after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents.

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. 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 workthink of it as a miniature version of your dissertation or research paper. In most cases, this means the abstract should contain four key elements.

Here's why students love Scribbr's proofreading services

Discover proofreading & editing

Aims

Start by clearly defining the purpose of your research. What practical or theoretical problem does the research respond to, or what research question did you aim to answer?

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 investigatetest, 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.

Methods

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 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.

  • 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.

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.

  • 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.

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 jargonthe 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.

Checklist: Abstract

0 / 8

Well done!

You've written a great abstract! Use the other checklists to continue improving your thesis or dissertation.

See all other checklists Return to checklist

Frequently asked questions about abstracts

What is the purpose of an abstract?

An abstract is a concise summary of an academic text (such as a journal article or dissertation). It serves two main purposes:

  • 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?

An abstract for a thesis or dissertation is usually around 200–300 words. There’s often a strict word limit, so make sure to check your university’s requirements.

When should I write the abstract?

The abstract is the very last thing you write. You should only write it after your research is complete, so that you can accurately summarize the entirety of your thesis or paper.

Can you cite sources in an abstract?

Avoid citing sources in your abstract. There are two reasons for this:

  • 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?

The abstract appears on its own page, after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents.

Is this article helpful?
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.

12 comments

Joseph
August 3, 2020 at 5:42 PM

It's helpful. Thank you

Reply

Holy
July 8, 2020 at 5:24 PM

I am grateful for this piece, it is well understood. I am an upcoming researcher, and your experience will be helpful. I want connect directly to you.

Reply

Riley
February 11, 2020 at 9:50 PM

What tense should I use to write the methodology part of an abstract when I am working on a research proposal? Future tense or present tense?

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
February 14, 2020 at 5:09 PM

Hi Riley,

If the research is yet to be conducted, future tense makes the most sense. Present tense is also appropriate if you're describing the contents of the proposal (e.g. "The proposed methodology is...")

Hope that helps!

Reply

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

Reply

Jess
April 18, 2019 at 10:20 PM

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

Reply

Burhan
June 15, 2020 at 11:36 AM

Thank you for All

Reply

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.

Reply

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.

Reply

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

Reply

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.

Reply

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!

Reply

Comment or ask a question.

Please click the checkbox on the left to verify that you are a not a bot.