Complete Guide on How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper

When a new movie comes out, what drives you to want to go see it? For most people, it’s the trailer. You catch one glimpse of it and you already know whether it’s going to knock your socks off or bomb. Well, an abstract is essentially the movie trailer of a research paper. It highlights the major key points discussed in your study. It serves to whet an audience’s appetite for what’s to come.

It can be defined as a detailed summary of a larger project, in this case, a research/study. It describes the content, objectives, scope, methodology, and findings. It provides insight into all parts of your project and not just the topic.

First impression matters

Many editorial boards in higher education institutions screen manuscripts based on how captivating their respective abstracts are. Those that fail to make a good impression are immediately tossed out in favor of something a little more flavorful. 

More often than not, your professor will ask you to submit an abstract alongside your research paper. While abstracts are typically around 300 words or less, most students find them particularly confusing to write. This article takes an in-depth look at how to write an abstract for a research paper that will leave your audience wanting more.

Types of abstracts

They fall into four major categories.

1. Critical abstract

These types don’t just describe the scope and findings of your research. They also contain additional commentary about the study’s validity, scope, completeness, and reliability. 

Researchers provide their audience with a comparison of their paper with other works in similar fields. This usually brings its length to about 400 to 500 words.

2. Descriptive abstract

Descriptive ones describe what type of information is found in the study. They are very short (about 100 words) and only describe the work being summarized. You can think of it as an outline of the work rather than a definitive summary of the project. It doesn’t front any judgments, results or conclusions of the research.

3. Informative abstract

A large majority of abstracts you’ll come across in academic writing are informative. These do more than just offer a mere description of the research. They go a step further to present and offer an explanation to all key arguments in the paper, and the important results. 

It contains the purpose of the research, scope, and methods just like you would find in a descriptive abstract. However, it also includes results, conclusions, and the author’s recommendations.

4. Highlight abstract

These types of abstracts are specifically written to capture an audience’s attention. It makes no pretense about trying to give a complete balanced picture of the contents of a research paper. 

It cannot be used independently and is characterized by leading remarks used to spark the reader’s interest. For this reason, it is not used in academic writing circles.

Structure of an abstract

A good abstract needs to have:

1. Purpose and motivation

This first section of your abstract identifies the “why” behind your research. It should typically address the following questions:

  • What informed your decision to do this research?
  • Why is it important to your field?
  • Why should your paper interest someone without a scholarly background?
  • Why should someone read your entire paper?

2. Problem

This section explains the particular problem you are addressing in your study. It answers the following questions:

  • What problem is your research project looking to solve?
  • Scope: Is your study addressing a general or specific issue?
  • What is your key argument?

3. Approach

This section of your abstract discusses the approach you used in undertaking your research. It answers these questions:

  • What type of study did you conduct?
  • What methods and variables did you use in your research?
  • Do you have any evidence to support your assertions?
  • What are some notable sources you used?

4. Results

This provides a summary of your research findings. It addresses the following questions:

  • What was the outcome of your study?
  • Did it yield any concrete results that would be of interest to your audience?
  • Were your results aligned to your hypothesis?
  • Would you say that the outcome was predicted or largely unexpected?

5. Conclusion

The conclusion addresses these questions:

  • How do the results of your study affect your particular field or world in general?
  • Are there other kinds of studies that would provide further solutions to the problem?
  • Is there any other information required to expand knowledge in this subject? If what is it?

Begin with the end in mind

As a general rule of thumb, abstracts are written after the main research paper is complete. So, ensure that it provides an accurate insight into what readers can expect in the main document, and why it should interest them. Your abstract is the window into your paper’s soul, so make it count.

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