An abstract is a short piece of text that you will find at the beginning of theses, dissertations, journal articles etc. It is a summary of the work which should instantly tell the reader the following:
- What is the problem/ gap in existing knowledge that you are trying to solve/fill?
- How did you go about it?
- What was the result?
- What are the implications of these results with reference to the problem/gap identified earlier?
If your work was a work of fiction, this would read like an epic spoiler, however, in the context of research it is very useful for the reader to be able to immediately identify what the work is about, whether this is because they are the person who is marking it, or whether they are someone looking to use your work in their own research.
Abstracts are often followed by a list of around 5 keywords stating the discipline and context in which the work is centered e.g. for a study on renewable energy focusing on domestic users the words might be “environmentally friendly technology, renewable power, solar energy, domestic architecture”.
This page has a great set of sample abstracts you can read which cover a few different disciplines.
The following are a list of things to avoid in a good abstract, taken from real-life abstracts I have read and/or edited:
- Don’t make your abstract too long. The examples in the link above are pretty much perfect. None of the sections listed above need huge amounts of description, think short and sweet, try to get your point across in the minimum words possible.
- Your abstract should be a unique piece of text, I have read abstracts cobbled together from sentences cut and pasted from the body of the essay, and while this can make for a good abstract, it is very obvious when one reads the full text that you’re seeing text you’ve read before. This creates a jarring déjà vu-like experience.
Below I have pasted my abstract from my MA thesis. I hate to keep using my own work as it really feels a bit like I’m plugging it, but I don’t have permission to use unpublished work from students, and I wanted to use something somewhat flawed.
I have highlighted sections from the abstract to show how it meets the criteria:
What was the problem? What was your method? What was the result? What are the wider implications?
Following on from the growing body of literature examining laughter in specific institutional contexts, this essay seeks to examine a conversational activity falling somewhere between the norms of casual and institutional conversation. This paper looks at laughter in a specific verbal play activity, the Story-Telling Word Game, played by two groups of friends and family, a word-game played by participants co-constructing a story one word at a time. The data is a transcript of approximately 11,500 words comprising a total of five entire Story-Telling Word Games. Initially, the Story-Telling Word Game will be examined as an activity type, and responses to game-turns will be analysed in terms of preference, in order to gain a greater understanding of the Story-Telling Word Game, and to centre the laughter analyses within a frame of reference. Then certain laughter categories will be examined, specifically those occurring near or during game-turns, as opposed to turns-at-talk. This essay adds to the growing body of Conversation Analytic literature examining laughter in very specific contexts, and research that demonstrates that laughter is not always related to humour.
Conversation analysis, laughter, humour, activity types, word games
This abstract has some problems to say the least, though it does fulfill the aims of not being to long and giving the reader some idea of what they’re about to read. This is how it could be improved:
Problem/gap identification: You could infer from the sentence in orange that ‘talk falling in the gap between casual and institutional’ has not been widely examined, but in an abstract this needs to be explicit. This abstract should state that there IS a gap and that this area is under-researched.
Method: This section isn’t too bad, it gives a good idea of what the data is and how it will be analysed, but fails to mention the main discipline the study will be based on, which was ‘conversation analysis’, it only mentions some more peripheral areas!
Results: This section is non-existent! I know, because I wrote it, that this study did have some interesting and atypical results and did identify some very under-researched types of laughter, and added a new category to the discipline.
Implications: This is weak, but not terrible. It shows what specific area of the discipline the dissertation adds to, but not the wider-reaching implications, such as suggestions for further study and the identification of under-researched laughter categories.
My best advice is to read a few example abstracts and try doing what I did to mine – find out which bits fulfill each criteria, and then do that to your own. If I had done this analysis two years ago when I submitted my abstract would have been much stronger.