Academic Genres #2: Abstracts

Recently I counseled two clients who were working on conference abstracts. Although I have written a few abstracts in my time as a PhD student, I looked at this academic genre with fresh eyes. To understand a genre, we do not simply have to understand the formal requirements. Rather, we need to understand the purpose of a text and what it is meant to accomplish. Depending on the context, an abstract has specific purposes, which need to be considered. Here I want to talk about a conference abstract. Similar considerations apply to abstracts for journals and other publication forms.

First, you might get a list of requirements regarding length, content, terminology, and other aspects of the abstract. You will do well to implement them, or risk a rejection for not following the rules.

The length of the text is one of the more challenging requirements. Usually an abstract’s length ranges from 250 to 500 words. Since you don’t have much space to fill, you must make every word count. There should be no word that doesn’t contribute to what you want to say. If they are not required, delete all literature references and get rid of qualifying words (adjectives, adverbs) that only produce vagueness. Write as clearly and informatively as possible. Use the available words consciously.

Now we come to the structure of an abstract. For a conference, you want the readers and potential attendees of your presentation to know the basic information. Of course, your paper’s title should already tell everything in short form. In the abstract, however, you can introduce arguments for why someone should be interested in your paper.

You should start by giving an overview of your topic. One to three sentences do the job. After giving some context, you tell the reader to which field of research you want to contribute and why. With this information you will show the relevance and that you are connecting your work to a discussion. On the other hand, you will tell the reader why you are contributing to this research, namely that there is something missing or not yet understood. You are going to fill a gap in that discussion. This part doesn’t need many sentences. Keep it short and concise. Then you will present your project that fills that gap. Here you can include information about the structure of your presentation and the material you’re working with. But don’t get carried away; remember the limited amount of words left. Here you also introduce your main point, argument, or thesis. Keep that short and precise as well. Ultimately, try to find a good closing sentence. You may for example go back to the overall topic presented at the beginning. Whatever you do, you should give your abstract a clear ending.

If you include these few elements in your abstract, it will embody the most important information you want to communicate. Besides this, it might be good if you refer to the conference or panel title or the overall topic. Make the connection clear by using key concepts or phrases.

Whether you follow these suggestions or not is up to you. But make sure that you know what you want to do and take deliberate decisions about the different aspects of the abstract. Abstracts often promote your paper so that you can participate in a conference. It constitutes your entry ticket. So take your time, even if the short text doesn’t look like much work. On the contrary, I think that the shorter the text, the more you have to think about what to exclude and how to write what should be included. Working on the abstract, you might sharpen your thinking about the topic and your argument. This, then, helps you to work out your presentation – yet another genre that needs trimming.

Next week, I will post some reflections about a phrase that I heard at a seminar with an expert in scholarly publishing.

Sources:

A blog post by Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor

Booth et al. 2008: The Craft of Research, p. 211

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