The Quick and Easy Guide to Abstracts

An abstract is a short, formal introduction to both the content and the organization of a larger document. Usually, the abstract is a requirement for reports, studies or other written formats in which methodology is important. (For example, some proposals rely heavily on methodology for their persuasive force.) The abstract is also often required for submission to journals or conferences.

The abstract appears at the beginning of the paper, either as part of the title page or as a separate page in the front matter. It is always short, ranging in size from 1 paragraph to 1 page. (Note: The term "abstract" may be applied to a longer summary of statistical data. In this usage, the "abstract" is a stand-alone document. Often, this kind of "abstract" is used to summarize demographic or other statistical data used by government agencies.)

Major Elements of an Abstract

While individual journals or professional associations may have specific submission guidelines, most abstracts follow a typical format:

Basic Elements

Additionally, you may need to include author information as requested. This is especially important in cases of multiple authors.

Types of Abstracts

There are two main types of abstracts. The Descriptive Abstract details the scope and organization of the project. Often it summarizes the Table of Contents. It is used to emphasize methodology. The Informative Abstract highlights main points, findings and conclusions. It presents a "mini paper" version of the project. But both formats are also persuasive. They set audience expectations and evaluations of the project and authors.


Style Tips

As with all documents, technique follows purpose and audience needs/expectations. Since abstracts are shorter than other summaries, you need to ensure accessible and effective presentation. Some suggestions: If you are not given submission guidelines, it is usually a good idea to look for samples of past submissions (i.e., past issues of journals, conference notes, etc.) These will give you an idea of the audience's expectations.

For a fairly typical submission guideline, see the ISQUA Conference Abstract Guidelines in Word Format.

Executive Summaries vs. Abstracts

Like the abstract, an executive summary provides an overview of the project. However, the executive summary is usually a longer piece and adds a directly persuasive element. The executive summary is meant to guide readers, especially non-technical readers, through your main points. As the author, you direct the readers' attention to highlights that strengthen your "argument."

An executive summary is usually longer than an abstract, providing more detail and, perhaps, graphics. Also, the executive summary is a less formal document and may be presented in either narrative or brochure (multi-column) format.

Finally, an executive summary is likely to target a different audience than the full document. Often managers use the executive summary as their primary decision making tool.

Click here to compare an abstract and an executive summary. (The executive summary is linked below the abstract.)

The Quick and Easy Guides for Writers

Written By: George Knox © 1999