How to write an abstract

An abstract is a short summary of a larger 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. Follow these four steps:

  1. State your research question and aims
  2. Give a brief description of the methodology
  3. Summarise your most significant findings or arguments
  4. State 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. Place 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.

    Step 1: State your aims

    Start by clearly defining the purpose of your research. What question did you aim to answer? Use verbs like investigate, test, analyse 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.

    Step 2: Describe your methods

    Next, indicate the methods that you used to answer your question. This part should generally 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 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.

    Step 3: Summarise your results

    Give an overview of the main results of the research. 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 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.

    Step 4: Give your conclusion

    Finally, state the main conclusion of your research: what is your answer to the research 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 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.

    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 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 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 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.

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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.

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