Writing a strong abstract is a daunting prospect for many researchers. It is, after all, these 150-250 words may determine if your poster or paper will be accepted, or whether a reader will continue on to read and understand your entire body of work.
The key is to make your abstract, like your other communications,message-driven. You want to catch the reader's attention, and convey your main message clearly and succinctly. Here are a few tips to help.
1. Above all, follow the given instructions about length, font, etc. for the particular journal or poster session. In general, your abstract should be one paragraph, 100-250 words, and should summarize the main sections of your paper, particularly your principal findings. If the journal requires it, don’t forget to include your study limitations.
2. One size does not fit all. If you’re submitting to a meeting or conference, be sure you understand its theme or focus and tailor your abstract to fit. For example, if the meeting is focused on policy issues and you submit an abstract that highlights a clinical issue without relating it to policy, your paper or poster is not likely to be selected. When submitting to several meetings or journals, tailor the abstract to each particular audience.
3. Do your homework. Look at abstracts from the prior year of the conference. What are the common elements of the accepted papers/posters, or the last several issues of the journal?
4. Choose an active voice title that emphasizes the importance of your findings. For example: “Effects of Obesity on Older Adults” is less effective than “Obesity Causes Liver Failure in Older Adults.”
5. Lead with your main message/primary findings. This should guide the rest of the abstract and be supported by your sub-messages. Don’t go into your secondary findings—they’ll only detract from your message. Also, be sure not to overstate the implications of your findings.
6. Use your best lines. If you’re having a hard time distilling your paper into a several succinct sentences try this: Go through your paper and pick out the key sentences. Cut and paste them into a draft abstract. Then, look at what you’ve got and start combining, summarizing, and deleting. Keep editing until you’re within your word limitations and your message is clear. Also, resist the urge for a lengthy Background section. Aim to use less than 20% of your space on Background.
7. Eliminate technical language or jargon, especially if it is discipline-specific and you’re applying to a journal or meeting of a different discipline. Also, define your terms when necessary.
8. Consider writing your abstract before the paper/article/poster. This is not the traditional method, but it can be extremely effective. You’ve completed your research and you have a clear sense of the major findings and their importance. Writing the abstract first can bring a focus to your message, and therefore your abstract, that you might otherwise struggle to find.
9. Edit, edit, edit! Remember, your abstract is the equivalent of your elevator speech. You’ve got a few lines to draw people into your paper—make them work for you!
If your abstract isn’t accepted, don't fret. See this as a learning opportunity. What you learn can help you strengthen your next abstract. Remember, papers aren’t the only way to present your research. Posters are an excellent opportunity to showcase your work.
Scientific Communication I by Curtis Clark at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, offers the basics on writing abstracts.
Writing Abstracts from the University of Pittsburgh has helpful explanations of the importance of each component of an abstract.
The Writing Center at University of North Carolina offers examples of the two main types of abstracts (descriptive and informative), provides guidelines for constructing an abstract and a few examples of abstracts broken down into their component parts.