Abstracts are, without question, one of the most critical elements of a research paper. They have been likened to movie trailers (albeit with spoilers) because they provide previews with highlights that help viewers decide whether they wish to see the entire work (Alspach, 2017). However, despite their crucial role in communicating the essence of a research paper, abstracts are frequently riddled with common errors (see Appendix).
If it is indeed true that “a poor-quality abstract rarely summarizes a high-quality manuscript” (Alspach, 2017, p. 12), what can be done to avoid such common mistakes? Since abstracts are highly structured texts, highlighting key points to include, via a simple and clear method, can do wonders for helping authors improve overall quality. Over the years, we’ve covered a few such techniques in The Writer’s Workshop. In this column, I’ll introduce the structured abstract, a format commonly used in medical journals, and show how it can be easily adapted for use with ELT-related research and academic papers via Mack’s (2012) structure method for abstract writing.
What is a Structured Abstract?
According to Hartley (2003), structured abstracts contain sub-headings that organize information clearly and systematically, such as background, aim(s), method(s), results, and conclusions. Of course these subheadings can be modified to fit a variety of research styles to summarize virtually any academic article. Compared with traditional abstracts, the structured format has several advantages:
- Contains more information
- Easier to read
- Possibly easier to recall
- Facilitates peer-review for conference proceedings
- Generally welcomed by readers
Despite these advantages, however, structured abstracts are not common in the field of ELT and would not be accepted in most journals, which tend to favor a single-paragraph style. However, awareness of this format can be helpful for writing abstracts that avoid many common weaknesses.
A Structured Approach
Mack (2012) breaks down a very simple three-step method that utilizes a structured abstract to compose a typical one in a single paragraph:
- Write a structured abstract with the following five sub-headings: Background, Aim, Approach, Results, and Conclusions. In general, try to write two sentences for each section, more or less to fit within the required word limit. In Background, the goal is to situate your research or topic within a larger field, to touch upon any relevant issues that led to your project. This sets up your Aims, which are the specific focus of your investigation, i.e. your research question(s). Approach covers the methodology you used to collect data; Results presents the key findings (including numbers, if possible); and Conclusions consists of a key takeaway or two.
- When you finish and are satisfied with your work, delete the subheadings and combine all the lines into a single paragraph.
- (Optional) Reread the abstract and make small tweaks to increase readability and flow.
Covering each of these steps will ensure that the abstract is a thorough and effective summary of your paper. To improve the prose, be sure to avoid unnecessary phrases such as in this paper, we report or will be discussed and avoid use of the first person (I, we, the author). Keep the focus on your work, not on the paper. Avoid including citations, abbreviations, or acronyms if at all possible, and do not refer to any figures or tables found in the main text. Finally, to ensure greater accuracy, write the abstract last, after you’ve completed your final draft and are fully in control of every detail.
Essential Elements of an Abstract
Even though a structured approach to writing abstracts can help in many ways, remember to do a final check to make sure you have not left anything out. The following checklist, from Alspach (2017), can help you accomplish this important task:
- My abstract is a succinct summary of the most important content in my paper.
- The writing is clear and concise.
- Abbreviations (if any) are fully spelled out with first use
- There are no reference citations
- There are no grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors
- The format and word count meet all target journal requirements
The abstract is a key element of any academic article, as it plays a vital role in drawing readers in. Along with the title, abstracts help sell your paper to a larger audience and get the right people to read it: “Nothing works better than a well-written title and abstract to make sure that the wrong reader doesn’t waste time on the wrong paper, and that the right reader doesn’t mistakenly skip over the right paper” (Mack, 2012, para 2). To avoid common pitfalls, the structured abstract writing method is a simple and clear way of making sure nothing essential has been left out.
Alspach, J. A. G. (2017). Writing for publication 101: Why the abstract is so important. Critical Care Nurse, 37(4), 12–15. https://doi.org/10.4037/ccn2017466
Edwards, L., & Moore, C. (2015). Creating an abstract: informing and intriguing the reader. The Language Teacher, 39(6), 35–37. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT39.6
Hartley, J. (2003). Improving the clarity of journal abstracts in psychology. Science Communication, 24(3), 366–379. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547002250301
Hoey, M. (1983). On the surface of discourse. George Allen & Unwin.
Mack, C. (2012). How to write a good scientific paper: Title, abstract, and keywords. Journal of Micro/Nanolithography, MEMS, and MOEMS, 11(2), https://doi.org/10.1117/1.JMM.11.2.020101
Muller, T., & Talandis Jr., J. (2019). Tips for getting started in academics: Creating a successful conference proposal. The Language Teacher, 43(2), 32–34. https://doi.org/10.37546/JALTTLT43.2