After seeing one too many abstracts that paste together sentences from the article in an awkward fashion, I’m posting my brief guidelines to writing an abstract in the probably overly optimistic hope that some scholar may read it and write a little better abstract the next time.
Indexers and abstracters out there, what hints do you have for writing a great abstract? Share them in the comments section!
Writing the Abstract
“An abstract is a brief but accurate representation of the contents of a document”. While it might include words from the document being abstracted, it is primarily a creation of the abstracter and not a mix of quotes from the item’s content.
A well-written abstract is brief, accurate, and clear. There’s no room for redundancy when brevity is the aim. It’s free from jargon which might be unknown to some users. It is usually written using the active–not–passive) voice [Example: “The explorers discovered a route to India” is written in the active voice, whereas “The route to India was discovered by the explorers” is written in the passive voice.] and in complete sentences. It should read smoothly from point to point, not in a fragmented manner.
Users look to abstracts as guides for selecting articles to be read in more depth. This makes it easier for them to sift thorough large amounts of information and pick what they’ll spend their time on. Therefore abstracts should include the basic who, what, when, where, and why. A key sentence at the beginning–or sometimes the end–of an abstract can help orient the reader. Many documents can be abstracted by stating the thesis and showing how it is supported. Only the most important arguments used to prove the main point should be included. This style is called an informative abstract.
Some documents do not try to prove a thesis; conference summaries, review articles and articles dealing with complex ideas are examples of this type. These documents are best abstracted by describing the scope of the item without attempting to include arguments and conclusions (which there may not be in any case). This style is called an indicative abstract. Some abstracts will combine elements of both the informative and indicative abstracting styles.
And P.S. Please do not put citations in your abstracts. Life–and abstracts–are too short for that.
Lancaster, F.W. Indexing and abstracting in theory and practice. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1991.
“ABC-CLIO abstracting instructions.” Santa Barbara, CA.: ABC-CLIO, [n.d.]