Creating an Abstract: Informing and Intriguing the Reader

Writer(s): 
Loran Edwards, Kansai Gaidai University; Charles Moore, Concordia University

Teachers and researchers are master “skimmers” and “scanners.” Whether flipping through academic journals, browsing online, or looking over conference booklets, they scan presentation and article titles looking for something attention grabbing. When they do find something interesting, they then quickly skim the abstract, and if that speaks to them, then they will finally slow down to read the whole article. As a writer, this means you have just a few short seconds to hook a reader and get your message out there. Write a catchy title, and then make sure your abstract is perfectly set-up to grab your reader’s attention. In this column, I will discuss how to write two types of abstracts: presentation abstracts and article abstracts.

Presentation Abstracts

If you plan to submit a presentation proposal to an academic conference, such as the JALT Pan-SIG Conference or the JALT National Conference, you will need to submit it in the form of an abstract. For these conferences specifically, this will be a 100-word maximum, one paragraph summary of your presentation. This will be used in the selection process, and then, once your presentation has been accepted, this abstract will be listed in the conference handbook and website for conference participants to view when deciding which presentations interests them or not (PanSIG, 2014).

The abstracts will be different depending on the type of presentation, and all will not include the same kind of information, but all should present a clear and specific summary of what the presentation will cover. When I coach people on their abstract writing, I try to have them write their summary in four sentences, with each sentence having its own objective. The four types of sentences are as follows:

  • Introduce the topic
  • Describe the issue you are addressing 
  • Present your study, methods, or solution
  • Give the reader some takeaways

Example Presentation Abstracts

Here are two abstracts from the 2015 Pan-SIG conference handbook. Notice that both of them follow the four-sentence format listed above. They introduce a problem in the beginning and then let the reader know how the researcher addressed or studied the problem. Next, they let the reader know specifically what can be done to solve the problem and provide some very clear take-home ideas.

 Abstract 1: University students have rich social lives inside and outside the classroom, but little research in Japan has examined how social networks relate to language learning. This presentation describes an exploratory study of four Japanese university students and the support they received from social networks while completing writing assignments for EAP courses. Formalized opportunities for support from peers and teachers provided the most direct support while time, need, and attitude often limited informal connections to emotional support. I will share ways teachers can encourage students to make the best use of social networks and ideas for classroom activities involving social networking (Bankier, 2015).

 Abstract 2: Although a myriad of factors influence second language acquisition, affective factors have a unique impact on SLA. Japanese socio-education culture and students’ perceptions towards foreign language learning can create specific challenges for the language instructor. This presentation will examine three affective variables—self-efficacy, integrative motivation, and inhibition—related with Japanese students learning English. Suggestions for bridging these potential affective “gaps” in students’ learner identities during the preschool and primary school years will also be discussed, and how, in bridging these gaps, the stage can be set for more effective language acquisition during the students’ English studies (Moore, 2015).

 Remember, you only get 100 words, so every word has to count! Careful editing and multiple rewrites are very important when preparing an abstract for a presentation. It is very much like trying to fit odd shaped blocks into a square box—there are only a couple of ways it will work, and you will probably have to take everything out and start over again several times.

Article Abstracts

There are two main types of article abstracts: descriptive abstracts and informative abstracts. Descriptive abstracts are much shorter and more general—like the description for a book on Amazon.com. Informative abstracts are much more common for academic publications. This type of abstract is a short, powerful, self-contained summary of the entire paper; it should not be an excerpt from the main article nor should it be necessary to read the abstract in order to understand the full paper. According to the staff at The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), an abstract serves two main functions: to help potential readers decide whether the full article is of interest to them and also to allow for correct indexing of the article so that it can be retrieved accurately from online databases and search engines (n.d.). Because of this, it is important to include critical keywords that emphasize the topic of the work and give readers enough information to make a judgement about whether this article applies to their research or not (UNC, n.d.). An author should include and explain all of the important arguments, problems, evidence, and results that are going to be included in the full article. However, an abstract should rarely be more than 10% of the length of the entire article (UNC, n.d.), so once again, please make every word count! Below is an example abstract from a JALT conference proceedings article. The keywords are in bold for keyword example purposes only.

One challenge many teachers face in their EFL writing classes is trying to create writing tasks that can work for students of varying skill levels. Another hurdle is finding a good method for providing each student with feedback that they will be able to apply to future drafts or other writing assignments. When we were given the opportunity to create a new writing course, we explored the idea of incorporating portfolios into our writing class that would hopefully address both of these challenges. It was hypothesized that writing portfolios would allow students to work at their own pace and writing level by giving them the opportunity to decide how and when they would complete their writing projects. The course delivery and instruction centered around student-teacher conferences intended to give individual feedback to each student multiple times throughout the semester (Leachtenauer & Edwards, 2013).

Tips for Writing Article Abstracts

When writing an article abstract, I often coach people to think of the abstract as a paper itself and to use a similar writing process for constructing it. First make an outline, then create a first draft, and then compare it to the rest of the paper to make sure all the important parts are present, rewriting as needed. Next, have a friend, a colleague, or a PSG peer-reader read only the abstract and then tell you what your full article is about—if they get it right, you have a winner! If not, then rewrite again. Finally, proofread and edit to get every word and phrase as strong and clear as possible.

Also, if you are having trouble organizing your abstract, try reverse outlining (UNC, n.d.). On a large piece of paper or whiteboard, write down each section heading in your paper. Then, write down the main ideas of each paragraph in outline form under their corresponding section heading. Next, when writing your main abstract, try to write down all of the previously categorized main ideas under each section heading as one sentence in the abstract. (As an added bonus, reverse outlining can also help you see if there are any areas of your paper that are repetitive, missing, etc.) 

Takeaway Message

It is easy to think of the abstract as just a simple little paragraph that can be whipped up quickly, just before you submit your paper. This is a bad idea! Even though it is little, the abstract is one of the most important parts of your paper and deserves your full attention. If you are unsure how to begin, decide what publication you would like to submit your article to and then read some of their previously published abstracts and articles. If you are preparing to submit a proposal for a conference, look up past conference handbooks and read through some of the proposals. For starters, you can access the handbook for the PanSIG 2015 conference at <http://sites.google.com/site/jaltpansig>. And of course, you can always ask for help from the JALT Writers’ Peer Support Group at <http://jalt-publications.org/psg>.

References

Bankier, J. (2015). Japanese university students’ support from social networks. Presented at the PanSIG 2015 Conference, Kobe, Japan. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_LXoBi4QHK6fnNKbURFQUk4RGhKbEVU...

Leachtenauer, J. E., & Edwards, L. A. (2013). Portfolios and process writing: Effective tools for university writing classes. In N. Sonda & A. Krause (Eds.), JALT 2012 Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from http://jalt-publications.org/proceedings/articles/3310-portfolios-and-pr...

Moore, C. E. (2015). Bridging the Affective Factor Gap in Young Japanese Students’ English Studies. Presented at the PanSIG 2015 Conference, Kobe, Japan. Retrieved from https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_LXoBi4QHK6fnNKbURFQUk4RGhKbEVU...

PanSIG Conference Website. (2014). Retrieved from http://pansig.org/2014/message-from-the-co-chairs/abstract-writing-tips

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). (n.d.). The Writing Center. Retrieved from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/abstracts

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