A reader looks at a summary for the sole purpose of getting a quick glimpse of the article. As a result, she doesn't want to waste time with a lot of phrases and words that do not further the meaning, nor is she interested in the summary writer's opinion. Accounting for audience needs, there are three generalizable principles about the style of summaries:
Use of "I"
Although use of "I" or "we" is acceptable in some disciplines, many frown on its use in abstracts. Read several abstracts in the publication you're submitting to or the databases you expect to include your abstract. When in doubt, do not use "I." Instead, use the following strategies:
Substitute for "I"
Most abstracts make the paper/report/study the focus of the abstract and the grammatical subject of sentences in the abstract. Try these sentence openers:
- This paper explores. . .
- This study suggests. . .
- The report investigates. . . .
Passive Voice In combination with substitutes for "I," passive voice helps writers focus on the paper/report/study. Instead of, "I propose that ethnography is a better research method than case study" (active voice), the abstract might use: "Ethnography is proposed as a better research method than case study." (passive voice) Be sure to combine substitutes for "I" with passive voice to avoid overusing the passive.
Use of Quotes
When using your own sentences, you don't need to put them in quotation marks. For example, if your methods section begins with "Three methods were used to investigate this question: case study, surveys, and observational research," feel free to repeat the sentence in its entirety in the abstract. Remember, however, the following points:
- Revise the sentence so it makes sense in the abstract (i.e., if you have not summarized "this question" in the abstract, omit substitute for that phrase).
- Do not "lift" sentences which are not your own (i.e., quotes from other people's work).
Use of Literary Present Tense
Abstracts use the present tense because we assume texts speak to the present even if their authors are dead and/or wrote the words in the past. As a result, write about the text and/or author as if they were composing the words at the moment. For example:
- Hemingway describes Paris as......
- The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal.
Caution: This rule varies from discipline to discipline.