These materials were made possible thanks to the generous support from the Kemper K. Knapp Bequest Committee.
On this page, the UW-Madison Writing Center Writer's Handbook offers advice on writing abstracts and answers questions such as: including:
On the "Abstracts: Examples" page, you will also find sample Undergraduate Symposium abstracts from a variety of disciplines.
An abstract is a concise summary of a larger project (a thesis, research report, performance, service project, etc.) that concisely describes the content and scope of the project and identifies the project’s objective, its methodology and its findings, conclusions, or intended results.
Remember that your abstract is a description of your project (what you specifically are doing) and not a description of your topic (whatever you’re doing the project on). It is easy to get these two types of description confused. Since abstracts are generally very short, it’s important that you don’t get bogged down in a summary of the entire background of your topic.
As you are writing your abstract, stop at the end of every sentence and make sure you are summarizing the project you have undertaken rather than the more general topic.
Abstracts do vary from discipline to discipline, and sometimes within disciplines.
Abstracts in the hard sciences and social sciences often put more emphasis on methods than do abstracts in the humanities; humanities abstracts often spend much more time explaining their objective than science abstracts do.
However, even within single disciplines, abstracts often differ. Check with a professor to find out about the expectations for an abstract in your discipline, and make sure to ask for examples of abstracts from your field.
Despite the fact that abstracts vary somewhat from discipline to discipline, every abstract should include four main types of information.
What is the problem or main issue? Why did you want to do this project in the first place?
The first few sentences of your abstract should state the problem you set out to solve or the issue you set out to explore and explain your rationale or motivation for pursuing the project. The problem or issue might be a research question, a gap in critical attention to a text, a societal concern, etc. The purpose of your study is to solve this problem and/or add to your discipline’s understanding of the issue.
Some authors state their thesis or hypothesis in this section of the abstract; others choose to leave it for the “Conclusions” section.
What did you do?
This section of the abstract should explain how you went about solving the problem or exploring the issue you identified as your main objective.
For a hard science or social science research project, this section should include a concise description of the process by which you conducted your research. Similarly, for a service project, it should outline the kinds of service you performed and/or the process you followed to perform this service. For a humanities project, it should make note of any theoretical framework or methodological assumptions. For a visual or performing arts project, it should outline the media you employed and the process you used to develop your project.
What did you find?
This section of the abstract should list the results or outcomes of the work you have done so far. If your project is not yet complete, you may still want to include preliminary results or your hypotheses about what those results will be.
What did you learn?
The abstract should close with a statement of the project’s implications and contributions to its field. It should convince readers that the project is interesting, valuable, and worth investigating further. In the particular case of the Undergraduate Symposium, it should convince readers to attend your presentation.
You probably already have some idea for a title for your project. Consider your audience; for most projects, it is best to choose a title that is comprehensible to an audience of intelligent non-specialists.
Avoid jargon; instead, make sure that you choose terms that will be clear to a wide audience.
More often than not, projects are not completely finished by the time presenters need to submit their abstracts. Your abstract doesn’t need to include final results (though if you have them, by all means include them!).
If you don’t yet have final results, you can either include any preliminary results that you do have, or you can briefly mention the results that you expect to obtain.
Similarly, unexpected or negative results occur often. They can still be useful and informative, and you should include them in your abstract. Talk with your mentor to discuss how such results are normally handled in your discipline.
In any case, whether you have complete, partial, projected, or unexpected results, keep in mind that your explanation of those results – their significance – is more important than the raw results themselves.
Be straightforward. Don’t worry about making your abstract “flow”. Don’t worry about writing a long or elaborate introduction or conclusion, and as we suggested above, don’t include too much background information on your project’s general topic. Instead, focus on what you have done and will do as you finish your project by providing the information we have suggested above.
If your abstract is still too long, look for unnecessary adjectives or other modifiers that do not directly contribute to a reader’s understanding of your project. Look for places where you repeat yourself, and cut out all unnecessary information.
Re-examine the work you have done so far (whether it is your entire project or a portion of it). Look specifically for your objectives, methods, results, and conclusions.
After re-examining your work, write a rough draft without looking back at the materials you’re abstracting. This will help you make sure you are condensing the ideas into abstract form rather than simply cutting and pasting sentences that contain too much or too little information.
Bring your draft to the Writing Center to get feedback from a writing instructor. Call 263-1992 to make an appointment.
Avoid jargon. Jargon is the specialized, technical vocabulary that is used for communicating within a specific field. Jargon is not effective for communicating ideas to a broader, less specialized audience such as the Undergraduate Symposium audience.
Discipline-specific sentence: Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter.
Revised for a more general audience: We will fight on the beaches.
Discipline-specific sentence: Geographical and cultural factors function to spatially confine growth to specific regions for long periods of time.
Revised for a more general audience: Geographical and cultural factors limit long-term economic growth to regions that are already prosperous.
Discipline-specific sentence: The implementation of statute-mandated regulated inputs exceeds the conceptualization of the administrative technicians.
Revised for a more general audience: The employees are having difficulty mastering the new regulations required by the law.
(Examples excerpted from Lantham, Richard. Revising Prose; McCloskey, Donald N. The Writing of Economics; and Scott, Gregory M. and Garrison, Stephen M., The Political Science Student Writer’s Manual.)
Be concise. Don’t use three words where you can communicate the same idea in one. Don’t repeat information or go into too much detail. Don’t just cut and paste sentences from your research paper into your abstract; writing that is appropriate for long papers is often too complicated for abstracts. Read more about general principles of writing clear, concise sentences.
Use short, direct sentences. Vary your sentence structure to avoid choppiness. Read your abstract aloud, or ask someone else to read it aloud to you, to see if the abstract is appropriately fluid or too choppy.
Use past tense when describing what you have already done.
Check with a professor in your field to determine whether active or passive voice is more appropriate for your discipline. Read more about active and passive voice.
Don’t cite sources, figures, or tables, and don’t include long quotations. This type of material takes up too much space and distracts from the overall scope of your project.
Work with a professor or another student in your field throughout the entire process of writing your abstract. People familiar with work in your field will be able to help you see where you need to say more and where you need to say less and will be able to help with clarity and precision as well.
Bring your draft to the Writing Center to get feedback from a writing instructor. Call 263-1992 to set up an appointment.
Finally, ask someone you know (a roommate, friend, or family member) who specializes in a different field to read your abstract and point out any confusing points. If you can make your abstract understandable to an intelligent non-specialist, you’ve probably made it effective for the audience of a standard conference or symposium.
Continue reading for examples of abstracts from many disciplines.
(Works Consulted: LEO Writing Abstracts, ©1995, ‘96, ‘97, ’98 The Write Place; Writer’s Workshop, University of Illinois, Urbana, adapted by Kitty O. Locker, 1997.)