Types of Abstracts
Although you'll see two types of abstracts—informative and descriptive—most writers now provide informative abstracts of their work.
A descriptive abstract outlines the topics covered in a piece of writing so the reader can decide whether to read the entire document. In many ways, the descriptive abstract is like a table of contents in paragraph form. Unlike reading an informative abstract, reading a descriptive abstract cannot substitute for reading the document because it does not capture the content of the piece. Nor does a descriptive abstract fulfill the other main goals of abstracts as well as informative abstracts do. For all these reasons, descriptive abstracts are less and less common. Check with your instructor or the editor of the journal to which you are submitting a paper for details on the appropriate type of abstract for your audience.
An informative abstract provides detail about the substance of a piece of writing because readers will sometimes rely on the abstract alone for information. Informative abstracts typically follow this format:
- Identifying information (bibliographic citation or other identification of the document)
- Concise restatement of the main point, including the initial problem or other background
- Methodology (for experimental work) and key findings
- Major conclusions
Informative abstracts usually appear in indexes like Dissertation Abstracts International; however, your instructor may ask you to write one as a cover sheet to a paper as well.
A More Detailed Comparison of Descriptive vs. Informative
The typical distinction between descriptive and informative is that the descriptive abstract is like a table of contents whereas the informative abstract lays out the content of the document. To show the differences as clearly as possible, we compare a shortened Table of Contents for a 100-page legal argument presented by the FDA and an informative abstract of the judge's decision in the case.