The abstract structure generally follows that of the wider paper or thesis, with sections corresponding to aspects of the introduction, methods, results and discussion. As essentially micro-theses, abstracts are short, but writing them is deceivingly hard, as they need to be packed with a lot of information. In addition many people think they are easy and leave them to the night before to write. This is a mistake. The abstract is the first thing a person reads on your proposal or thesis – a bad abstract will put the reader off, not provide enough information on your study, and generally give the reader a bad impression. A good abstract sets you up for success. We provide a sentence by sentence guide below and will then review two abstracts. Good luck and start soon!
Section 1. (1 sentence) Overview of problem, reference to broader question being investigated. Should be short and relatively interesting/punchy.
Section 2. (1 sentence) Focused overview of what is unknown, providing context for the study and potentially including the aims or goals. Some abstracts will state the goal or hypothesis within this sentence.
Section 3. (1-3 sentences). Methods you undertook to address the problem. This section should include an overview of the methods used, in enough detail to give the reader a general idea of what you did, but not in so much detail that the abstract becomes long and cumbersome. Including the sample size(s) and types of analyses used is appropriate in some cases, but it is usually inappropriate to quote numerical values from statistical tests, e.g. p values.
Section 4. (2-4 sentences). General results and outcomes, stating the major, significant results.
Section 5. (1-2 sentences). Most important discussion point.
Section 6. (1 last sentence). Broader implications and importance of
results – this should tie back in to the original question at the start of the abstract.
Martin Stute had a paper published in Water Resources Research. Let’s read Martin’s abstract and then critique how he did following the rules above. There are a total of 5 sentences and 156 words. Read the abstract yourself and then open our comments and see if you agree. PDF is Marked up. Overall a very nice abstract. A few areas could have been extended but a nice abstract that follows the rules!
Secondly, we’ll look at an abstract by Ducklow et al. (2018). Identify the main message or purpose of each section, and see if you can put the abstract back together into its original form. Does the finished abstract show a clear logical progression? Does it give sufficient information on the background, methods and results?
Another scrambled abstract as example: Scrambled abstract.