A Student Guide to Writing an Abstract

An abstract plays a key role in calling attention to a research paper in a journal or an oral or poster presentation at a conference or colloquium. It serves as a short introduction to the subject at hand.

Typically, the prospective reader or listener has only your title and abstract available to decide whether your topic is worth his or her attention. And a title by itself, whether vague (“On a Theorem of Hilbert”) or specific  (“A Complete Description of Θ-Continuous Functions”), doesn’t do the job. Without an abstract, there usually isn’t enough information for someone to decide that what follows will be of interest.

An abstract is a bit of a flirtation. Your goal is to entice someone to want more. So, without giving everything away, you offer tantalizing hints of what is to come.

An abstract should be no longer than one paragraph. To appeal to the broadest possible audience, use as little technical jargon and as few long symbolic strings as possible. Remember that it all reads easily to you because you have worked long and hard at producing your results. Don’t assume that your readers or listeners can keep pace with you.

Here are some extra things to note about abstracts for talks:

A) You don’t need to include references. It is acceptable to say this research was inspired by a paper by Smith and Jones without citing their paper.

B) This is about the research, not about you. Avoid referring to you, your adviser, or your REU in your abstract. Keep to the subject at hand, but you need not give away all of your results. If you have a big ending for your talk, keep it quiet for maximum impact, but make sure you don’t run out of time and end up rushing your big finish.

As with anything you write, an abstract is not something that springs forth in perfect form. Do a first draft, then show it to a friend. Do a second draft, and get feedback from a faculty member. Do a third draft, making sure everything is spelled correctly and it says what you want it to say.

A well-written abstract will go a long way toward getting you an appreciative audience for your results.

In Brief

  • An abstract should entice someone to read your paper or see your presentation.
  • Keep it to one paragraph in length.
  • Stick to the topic.
  • Don’t give away all your results.
  • Avoid technical jargon and an abundance of symbols.
  • Don’t include a list of references.