I say "prepping" because my students haven't actually written their research papers yet (they barely have topics). But how does one write an abstract for a paper that hasn't been written? you might ask. This is where one could argue that this task requires the use of one's creative faculties. By writing their abstracts before their actual papers, students must imagine their papers into being. They have to ask the following questions:
- What is the argument of this make-believe paper?
- What are the most important points in this argument?
- What kinds of evidence support those points?
- What is the resolution or conclusion of this paper?
By writing the abstract first, we are reversing the process of traditional research-paper writing, allowing students learn another way to brainstorm and organize a larger piece. The abstract becomes a student's ideal paper, which can be seen as a list of goals the writer needs to achieve. I enjoy giving my class an assignment like this because it's challenging and students engage in taking abstract ideas (i.e. their jello-y research paper topics) and solidifying them in a short, specific, and organized way.
The following handout explains what an abstract is, the different kinds of abstracts, and how and when to use an abstract. There is also an example of a successful abstract, an in-class activity (I had the students, in class, write an abstract for the book they've read Sista Tongue, which I blogged about here), and their homework assignment.
Information from the below handout comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center. The assignment I propose are my own and can and should be tweaked for your own teaching purposes.
ENG100 Summer 2010
Instructor: Jaimie Gusman
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a self-contained, short, and powerful statement that describes a larger work. Components vary according to discipline; an abstract of a social science or scientific work may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work. An abstract of a humanities work may contain the thesis, background, and conclusion of the larger work. An abstract is not a review, nor does it evaluate the work being abstracted. While it contains key words found in the larger work, the abstract is an original document rather than an excerpted passage.
Why write an abstract?
You may write an abstract for various reasons. The two most important are selection and indexing. Abstracts allow readers who may be interested in a longer work to quickly decide whether it is worth their time to read it. Also, many online databases use abstracts to index larger works. Therefore, abstracts should contain keywords and phrases that allow for easy searching.
When do people write abstracts?
· when submitting articles to journals, especially online journals
· when applying for research grants
· when writing a book proposal
· when completing the Ph.D. dissertation or M.A. thesis
· when writing a proposal for a conference paper
· when writing a proposal for a book chapter
Most often, the author of the entire work (or prospective work) writes the abstract. However, there are professional abstracting services that hire writers to draft abstracts of other people's work. In a work with multiple authors, the first author usually writes the abstract. Undergraduates are sometimes asked to draft abstracts of books/articles for classmates who have not read the larger work.
Types of abstracts
There are two types of abstracts: descriptive and informative. They have different aims, so as a consequence they have different components and styles. There is also a third type called critical, but it is rarely used.
A descriptive abstract indicates the type of information found in the work. It makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. It does incorporate key words found in the text and may include the purpose, methods, and scope of the research. Essentially, the descriptive abstract describes the work being abstracted. Some people consider it an outline of the work, rather than a summary. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short—100 words or less.
The majority of abstracts are informative. While they still do not critique or evaluate a work, they do more than describe it. A good informative abstract acts as a surrogate for the work itself. That is, the writer presents and explains all the main arguments and the important results and evidence in the complete article/paper/book. An informative abstract includes the information that can be found in a descriptive abstract (purpose, methods, scope) but also includes the results and conclusions of the research and the recommendations of the author. The length varies according to discipline, but an informative abstract is rarely more than 10% of the length of the entire work. In the case of a longer work, it may be much less.
Which type should I use?
Your best bet in this case is to ask your instructor or refer to the instructions provided by the publisher. You can also make a guess based on the length allowed; i.e., 100-120 words = descriptive; 250+ words = informative.
How do I write an abstract?
The format of your abstract will depend on the work being abstracted. An abstract of a scientific research paper will contain elements not found in an abstract of a literature article, and vice versa. However, all abstracts share several mandatory components, and there are also some optional parts that you can decide to include or not. When preparing to draft your abstract, keep the following key process elements in mind:
Key process elements:
Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?
Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?
Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.
Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?
All abstracts include:
· a full citation of the source, preceding the abstract.
· the most important information first.
· the same type and style of language found in the original, including technical language.
· key words and phrases that quickly identify the content and focus of the work.
· clear, concise, and powerful language (ACTIVE VOICE).
Abstracts may include:
· The thesis of the work, usually in the first sentence.
· Background information that places the work in the larger body of literature.
· The same chronological structure as the original work.
Do not refer extensively to other works.
Do not add information not contained in the original work.
Do not define terms.
If you are abstracting your own writing
When abstracting your own work, it may be difficult to condense a piece of writing that you have agonized over for weeks (or months, or even years) into a 250-word statement. There are some tricks that you could use to make it easier, however.
This technique is commonly used when you are having trouble organizing your own writing. The process involves writing down the main idea of each paragraph on a separate piece of paper. For the purposes of writing an abstract, try grouping the main ideas of each section of the paper into a single sentence. For a scientific paper, you may have sections titled Purpose, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Each one of these sections will be longer than one paragraph, but each is grouped around a central idea. Use reverse outlining to discover the central idea in each section and then distill these ideas into one statement.
Cut and paste:
To create a first draft of an abstract of your own work, you can read through the entire paper and cut and paste sentences that capture key passages. This technique is useful for social science research with findings that cannot be encapsulated by neat numbers or concrete results. A well-written humanities draft will have a clear and direct thesis statement and informative topic sentences for paragraphs or sections. Isolate these sentences in a separate document and work on revising them into a unified paragraph.
If you are abstracting someone else's writing
When abstracting something you have not written, you cannot summarize key ideas just by cutting and pasting. Instead, you must determine what a prospective reader would want to know about the work. There are a few techniques that will help you in this process:
Identify key terms: Search through the entire document for key terms that identify the purpose, scope, and methods of the work. Pay close attention to the Introduction (or Purpose) and the Conclusion (or Discussion). These sections should contain all the main ideas and key terms in the paper. When writing the abstract, be sure to incorporate the key terms.
Highlight key phrases and sentences: Instead of cutting and pasting the actual words, try highlighting sentences or phrases that appear to be central to the work. Then, in a separate document, rewrite the sentences and phrases in your own words.
Don't look back: After reading the entire work, put it aside and write a paragraph about the work without referring to it. In the first draft, you may not remember all the key terms or the results, but you will remember what the main point of the work was. Remember not to include any information you did not get from the work being abstracted.
Revision: No matter what type of abstract you are writing, or whether you are abstracting your own work or someone else's, the most important step in writing an abstract is to revise early and often. When revising, delete all extraneous words and incorporate meaningful and powerful words. The idea is to be as clear and complete as possible in the shortest possible amount of space. The Word Count feature of Microsoft Word can help you keep track of how long your abstract is and help you hit your target length.
Writing an Abstract
ENG100 Summer 2010
Instructor: Jaimie Gusman
Example: Humanities abstract
Kenneth Tait Andrews, "'Freedom is a constant struggle': The dynamics and consequences of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, 1960-1984" Ph.D. State University of New York at Stony Brook, 1997 DAI-A 59/02, p. 620, Aug 1998
This dissertation examines the impacts of social movements through a multi-layered study of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement from its peak in the early 1960s through the early 1980s. By examining this historically important case, I clarify the process by which movements transform social structures and the constraints movements face when they try to do so. The time period studied includes the expansion of voting rights and gains in black political power, the desegregation of public schools and the emergence of white-flight academies, and the rise and fall of federal anti-poverty programs. I use two major research strategies: (1) a quantitative analysis of county-level data and (2) three case studies. Data have been collected from archives, interviews, newspapers, and published reports. This dissertation challenges the argument that movements are inconsequential. Some view federal agencies, courts, political parties, or economic elites as the agents driving institutional change, but typically these groups acted in response to the leverage brought to bear by the civil rights movement. The Mississippi movement attempted to forge independent structures for sustaining challenges to local inequities and injustices. By propelling change in an array of local institutions, movement infrastructures had an enduring legacy in Mississippi.
Now let's break down this abstract into its component parts to see how the author has distilled his entire dissertation into a ~200 word abstract.
What the dissertation does
This dissertation examines the impacts of social movements through a multi-layered study of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement from its peak in the early 1960s through the early 1980s. By examining this historically important case, I clarify the process by which movements transform social structures and the constraints movements face when they try to do so.
How the dissertation does it
The time period studied in this dissertation includes the expansion of voting rights and gains in black political power, the desegregation of public schools and the emergence of white-flight academies, and the rise and fall of federal anti-poverty programs. I use two major research strategies: (1) a quantitative analysis of county-level data and (2) three case studies.
What materials are used
Data have been collected from archives, interviews, newspapers, and published reports.
This dissertation challenges the argument that movements are inconsequential. Some view federal agencies, courts, political parties, or economic elites as the agents driving institutional change, but typically these groups acted in response to movement demands and the leverage brought to bear by the civil rights movement. The Mississippi movement attempted to forge independent structures for sustaining challenges to local inequities and injustices. By propelling change in an array of local institutions, movement infrastructures had an enduring legacy in Mississippi.
Civil Rights Movement
Information from this handout comes from the UNC at Chapel Hill Writing Center: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/abstracts.html
Some information has been altered for this specific ENG100 course at UH Manoa.
In class writing assignment:
You will now write an “informative” abstract for Sistsa Tongue, which will be between 200 and 250 words. Remember, your audience for this abstract consists of people who have not yet read the book. You must include the thesis or main arguments, key terms, methodology (in this case you would talk about the form of the essay: collage), and discussion of content. Remember to use active voice, and that your abstract should be organized as a hierarchy of information, meaning that the most critical information will come first.
You will write an “informative” abstract for your research paper. The same rules apply: 200-250 words; must include your thesis/main arguments, key terms, methodology, brief overview of content; active voice; and must be organized by importance. You will also write an outline for your paper (you may do this in any format you’d like, but have the basics).
This will help you set goals for yourself and your paper. By writing an abstract before a first draft, or even an outline, you will have a good sense of what you want your paper to accomplish and how you will go about writing it successfully. Your outline should touch on all the important information you’d like to include in your paper.
BRING TWO COPIES OF YOUR ABSTRACT AND OUTLINE TO CLASS TOMORROW.