How to write an abstract



1. Descriptive abstract

Saturable dyes for laser Q switches are found to degrade with time. The cause of this degradation is discussed and a possible solution is proposed.

2. Informative abstract

Saturable dyes for laser Q switches degrade with time. The blue light from the flashlamp causes the degradation of the dye, and the dye's life may be extended by replacing the cell's windows with red filters.
 
 

abstract. The abstract is one of the most important parts of any paper and will probably be read by far more people than will ever read your paper; this is especially so nowadays, when a computer search may yield no more than a title and an abstract. Therefore, put as much about your paper into your abstract as you possibly can. Too many abstracts are written as if they were tables of contents, with the phrases isdescribed, is discussed added to each entry - that is, tables of contents in sentence form. Such abstracts are unaccountably called descriptive abstracts; they are generally not informative enough. They tell almost nothing about a paper, indeed, no more than a table of contents tells about a book. Instead of writing descriptive abstracts, make your abstracts informative summaries of your paper.

Descriptive abstracts may tell what subjects are in the paper, but they tell nothing about the details, much less the conclusions, of your paper. They tease, rather than inform. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a hypothetical abstract:

Saturable dyes for laser Q switches are found to degrade with time. The cause of this degradation is discussed and a possible solution is proposed.

This example gives me no useful information and requires me to read the paper.

An informative abstract, by contrast, is a short summary or synopsis of your paper. An informative abstract is not written as a table of contents, but rather summarizes your paper and tells its conclusions. With few exceptions, abstracts to scientific papers should be informative abstracts. The following informative abstract covers the same ground as the preceding descriptive abstract:

Saturable dyes for laser Q switches degrade with time. The blue light from the flashlamp causes the degradation of the dye, and the dye's life may be extended by replacing the cell's windows with red filters.

This example is a paraphrase from an abstract I read at least twenty years ago [well, thirty years now] and would have forgotten had it not been so clear and informative.

Make your abstracts informative, not descriptive. That is, make your abstracts short summaries of your paper, including especially any conclusions you may have drawn or recommendations you may have made. A good informative abstract may state the problem you are examining or the procedure you have carried out, your purpose in doing it, your results, and your conclusions or recommendations. Most abstracts are limited to one paragraph and must therefore be constructed with care.

Where possible, avoid narrowly technical terms, uncommon abbreviations,and references. Make sure that the abstract stands alone and can be read without reference to the paper itself.
 

Excerpted from The Technical Writer's Handbook, by Matt Young.
Copyright 1989 by University Science Books. All rights reserved.