Monday, August 1, 2011

How to write an abstract in 30 minutes

Have you ever been in the following situation?

You have selected a conference you would like to attend, and you have all the information you need for writing the abstract (the conference topic which suits your work, the maximum amount of words, submission through a website or email). Maybe you've googled "How to write an abstract". And there you are, with a new Word document and a scary white page in front of you. You go and get a cup of coffee, and stare at the screen. You play around with some words to come up with a good title which is within the maximum amount of characters allowed. You go and get another cup of coffee. Check Facebook. Get a snack... And before you know a few hours have gone by and Word is still showing an almost empty screen.

I've found what really works for me to write an abstract in roughly 30 minutes. As I was googling "How to write an abstract" in the past, I came across this article by Philip Koopman which caught my attention.

What I most like about this website is the questions it has in the different sections your abstract should contain:

Motivation: Why do we care about the problem and the results?

Problem statement: What problem are you trying to solve?

Approach: How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction, or analysis of field data for an actual product?

Results: What's the answer?

Conclusions: What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the world (unlikely), be a significant "win", be a nice hack, or simply serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the previous results are useful)?


In fact, whenever I now write an abstract, I simply copy and paste these questions into a new document. Then I start answering them one by one. Sometimes I just talk out loud and write it down. Style and grammar don't matter to me at that point - I just need to get the ideas out first.
These answers then make up the first draft of my abstract. I simply delete the questions, and print out this first version. At that point, I start manipulating the abstract into a readable text, in correct English (as good as possible in my case), and making sure the entire piece flows from its starting point and background description towards the results and conclusions.

Do you have a method which helps you to write abstracts?

40 comments:

  1. That's brilliant. I'm certainly going to do that the next time I need to write an abstract. My method at the moment is a mixture of staring at a blank screen and copying bits from old abstracts!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Keep me posted on how this works for you :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. That approach sounds familiar. Have been taught the same at Tech, and it works for me.

    Another approach would just be to have someone else write the abstract. Haven't figured out yet how to get there, tough ;-).

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like that other approach - but unfortunately I don't have a little writing/typing gnome here.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Sounds like a nice approach. Im going to try this. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. could you do an exented version of this for papers?

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'll try to see if I can come up with something - but usually I already have some material wandering around to start from.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I am one of those people who take forever to write an abstract. I am definitely going to use this technique the next time I have one to do :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Good luck to you! Let me know how you liked the approach :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. wow, it definitely helped me a lot when I was coming to write a talk abstract for a conference. I have stared my screen for nearly 3 hours with a blank text file...Thanks a lot and thumb up!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Great to read it has helped you :)

    ReplyDelete
  12. I just discovered your site yesterday and in a half hour I wrote an abstract to meet a submission deadline. Great post!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I just used this method to write an abstract in an hour or so. my first paper so it takes sometime I guess. thanks :)

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi wanted to let you know that for the journal article I'm writing now, my supervisor didn't find any type of error in my abstract which I wrote in less than 30 mins. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thanks for this post, as a non native speaker I am sure these suggestions of yours are going to help me a lot :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. PhD abstract written in just 25 minutes! Thank you so much for this :)

    Rebekah

    ReplyDelete
  17. What if the university asks you to send a writeup before you start research? In such cases what should we write?

    Deepa

    ReplyDelete
  18. Deepa, do you mean a statement of purpose, or a more detailed research plan / plan of action?

    ReplyDelete
  19. The research supervisor wanted an "abstract" of what my topic is going to be. I was under the assumption that abstract is written after completion of research, but now I am at a loss. May be she means a statement of purpose. A detailed research plan will not be possible at the absolute beginning,right?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Any guideline of how many words that will be? Did you already discuss which methods you will use, and the outcomes you hope to achieve?

    I do write abstracts for papers before having finished the research, because I know the whole process takes time and I don't want to present 2-year-old work at a conference.

    ReplyDelete
  21. When you write abstracts for papers before research, how can you be absolutely sure what your outcome will be ? My topic is very general at this point - I mean, the exact research problem has not been identified. It'll take a few more reading and contemplating sessions.

    Thanks for taking time to respond,Eva.

    Deepa

    ReplyDelete
  22. I typically don't state an outcome as "an increase in capacity with XX% is found", but I write it as "the increased capacity is quantified based on (whatever I need to do)". Hope that helps, Deepa!

    ReplyDelete
  23. I just found your blog. This is a great resource. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Just what I needed to read Eva. I was stuck in the coffee loop after I decided on a title for my first conference proposal.

    Thanks for helping out a newbie doctoral student.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I used the suggestions. I have no official reply up to now, but I have a good feeling. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
  26. Eva, my Ph.D supervisors were raising a number of issues regarding my abstract. I have just borrowed form your idea and all the word economics and precision seem to work. Thanks. Ernest

    ReplyDelete
  27. Glad to read that! Good luck with the paper..

    ReplyDelete
  28. perfect.. thanks a lot.. i just used it and accordingly drafted perfect abstract

    ReplyDelete
  29. Brief into the case !
    Good job, Thx

    ReplyDelete
  30. This is a brilliant idea. I have been agonising over a Phd abstact for days and tried this as a last resort and wrote an abstract in 30 minutes. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've accomplished the first paragraph all morning :(

    ReplyDelete
  32. Hi, you have posted such precious and informative article which gave me lot of information. I hope that you will keep it up and we will have more informative and helping news from you. Thanks | Phd Thesis Writing Services

    ReplyDelete

UA-49678081-1