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. For someone who doesn’t have time to read the whole text, the abstract offers a condensed overview of your most important points.
All abstracts should include:
- A statement of your main topic, purpose and objectives
- A brief description of the methodology
- An overview of the most significant findings or arguments
- A summary of your conclusions
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 assignment—often you will be given a strict word limit.
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
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 work—think of it as a miniature version of your dissertation or research paper. In most cases, this means the abstract should contain the following four key elements.
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:
- Problem statement: what practical or theoretical problem does the research solve?
- Objective: what did the research set out to do?
- Research question(s): what did you want to find out?
- Thesis statement: what do you argue?
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.
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, obstacles or limitations 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, summarise the main results of the research. 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.
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 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.
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 summarise 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 explanation—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 summarising 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.