Processes for Writing Abstracts

Unless you work for an abstracting service, you'll usually write abstracts of your own finished work. This section explores some strategies for drafting your abstract.

Cut and Paste Method

Beginning with reading may seem odd since you wrote the paper, but it can frequently be the fastest way to write an abstract because it allows you to "lift" as much of the abstract from your original paper as possible.

  1. As you read through your own paper, highlight or copy sentences which summarize the entire paper or individual sections or sub-points of your main argument.
  2. Write (or copy) a sentence that summarizes the main point.
  3. Add sentences that summarize sections (or write new sentences for sections that lack a concise summary sentence).
  4. If you're writing a descriptive abstract, you're ready to begin revising.
  5. If you're writing an informative abstract, look through your paper for details, particularly of key findings or major supporting arguments and major conclusions. Paste these into your abstract and proceed to editing for consistency and length--frequently in the original "cuts" you will still have more detail than is necessary in an abstract.

Outlining Method

Frequently, the best place to start writing an abstract is to first make an outline of the paper to serve as a rough draft of your abstract. The most efficient way to do this is to write what Kenneth Bruffee calls a descriptive or "backwards" outline.

Backwards Outline Instructions

  1. Read through each paragraph of your paper and write one phrase or sentence that answers the question "what does this paragraph do?"
  2. Take your list of descriptions for each paragraph and look for connections: i.e., do these 3 or 5 paragraphs do something similar? What is it?
  3. When you've reduced your outline to 4 or 5 accurate generalizations, you most likely have a descriptive abstract.
  4. If you're writing an informative abstract, fill in key details about your content.

Detailed Backwards Outline

Because informative abstracts need more detail, the regular backwards outline may not be as useful a strategy for this type of abstract. Instead, do a backwards outline on the left-hand side of a piece of paper. Then, on the right-hand side, answer the question "what does this paragraph say?" for each paragraph in the paper. Then complete the steps below:

  1. Take your first column and generalize down to 4-5 sentences about what the paper does.
  2. Use these sentences as topic sentences for the paragraphs in your abstract.
  3. Now, go to your second column and choose appropriate content for each section you outlined in #2. In other words, use the right-hand column to fill in details about what your paper says on each point outlined in #2.
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