Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How (not to) Write an Abstract

For SSRN papers, for grant applications, sometimes for law review articles, and other purposes, we often have to write abstracts. But no one tells you how to write one. At the request of a reader, in case it might be helpful, I’m offering some tips. If you disagree, agree or have other ideas, please post a comment.

An abstract should be a succinct statement summarizing your paper or project. It will be the reader’s first take on your project. If it is a lousy abstract, it may be their last. An abstract should make the project seem compelling and well-written, and cause the reader to want to know more. The abstract leads the reader to the rest of the paper.

How do you make sure your abstract holds the reader’s attention rather than turns them away? A few thoughts:

1. Never ever write an abstract at the last minute. Abstracts sometimes look like a last-minute afterthought, inelegantly written, and conveying little of a paper’s substance. Readers are less likely to download a paper with an abstract like this. Write your abstract a few days in advance. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

2. "In this essay, it will be argued that...." Never use passive voice in an abstract. Ever.

3. The writing in the abstract should be as good or better than in the paper, or at least as clear or clearer. If it is worse (awkward or confusing, when your paper is a crisp and compelling read), the abstract will not draw readers who would have valued your paper.

4. No typos or grammatical errors. To avoid this, find a friend to read and critique (or at least proof) your abstract.

5. Some advice: when your friend or family member criticizes your abstract, DO NOT become defensive or dismissive. Instead, say thank you. You needed it. If you don’t like their suggestions, they might still be flagging something that needs attention. Perhaps your abstract is unclear, and you can edit it in a different way than they suggest.

6. State the central thesis of your paper. Clearly. If you can’t state it clearly, you’re still working it out, and the paper may not be ready to post. Every project cannot be boiled down to a sound bite, but with a complex project, find a focused way of conveying the project’s central theme.

7. What is new and original about your paper? Describe your research, your findings, whatever it is that makes your paper special. If the point of your paper is to challenge a central line of argument in the preexisting literature, say so in the abstract.

8. If the abstract covers an entire page, it is not an abstract. Readers of abstracts want a short, quick take on your paper. If you have a five part paper with fifteen subsections, do not summarize each subpart. Summarize the essential components, or your most important contributions.

9. If you have a word limit (e.g. for a grant proposal), do not go over the limit. Not one word. Set the abstract aside for a few hours. You’ll find words to cut that don’t affect the substance.

10. So what’s the ideal length? Many good SSRN abstracts are between 200 and 500 words. Some are shorter, some longer. They are often broken up into two or three paragraphs. The right length depends on the paper. If you’re not sure, aim for 250-400 words.

11. If the abstract is for a grant proposal, pitch your project to the funding criteria in the abstract. For example, if the program funds projects on religious and ethical values, mention the way your project engages religious and ethical values.

12. If the abstract is for a general reader, don’t use specialized terms that need to be defined. Save that for the paper. Say it another way in the abstract.

13. Since SSRN abstracts that appear on blogs can be found through internet search engines, include terms that will enable yours to come up in the right searches. E.g. original intent, critical race theory, fourth amendment.

14. Having trouble getting started? Find an abstract that you like, and use it as a model. Some very different recent SSRN abstracts I like – they are clear, make the projects compelling, and make me want to read the papers – are here, here, and here.

More advice:

Tips about abstract writing in other fields are here and here.