Aphorisms on Abstracts

From the Latin ab, “away,” + trahere, “to draw,” an abstract is a short statement drawn out of a longer paper. An abstract is a brief summary of your paper written to allow others to determine if your paper contains information of sufficient interest for them to read.

Because an abstract is not a part of the paper proper, it’s fine to copy-and-paste material from your paper into your abstract.

In what follows, I suggest a structure for a 300-word abstract that provides the following information: Text, Critical Community, Problem, Methodology, Argument, Evidence, and Utility. Plan to spend one sentence, and one sentence only, on each kind of information, except your Evidence, which might require two or even three sentences.

Note that not all abstracts are 300 words. Depending on the purpose or publication, they can range from 50 words to 500. If your abstract needs to be shorter than 200 words, the key categories of information to convey are your Text, Problem, and Thesis.

Text: With as much nuance and specificity as possible, write a single sentence that describes your text – i.e., what you’re interpreting in your paper. As best as you can, try to identify both the material and the conceptual aspects of your text – that is, the specific documents, passages, people, events, ideas, etc. that you’re interpreting as well as the general topic, issue, problem, theme, etc. that you’re interpreting.

Critical Community: In a single sentence, review your critical community – i.e., the previous scholars who have addressed the same text you're addressing. You should aim to establish the dominant perspectives or “camps” in the criticism on your topic, potentially identifying which perspectives you plan to dispute and which you plan to develop.

Problem: With as much nuance and specificity as possible, write a sentence that describes your problem – i.e., why your text needs interpretation. You might state your problem by stating why the published criticism on your issue (i.e. your critical citations) is not completely satisfactory, and how your paper will fill a gap, correct a misconception, extend a line of thought, address new evidence, etc.

Methodology: Pause for a moment to be explicit about your methodology – i.e., the way in which you're going about your interpretation of your text. On the heels of your problem statement, your method statement may imply or explicitly suggest that the critical community is not completely satisfactory because it has not had the best methodology.

Thesis: Once you've given a text statement, a problem statement, and a method statement, give your thesis statement – i.e. your interpretation of your text. Remember that your thesis must be responsive to your text; you must actually be interpreting what you said you were going to interpret. Your thesis should also be responsive to your problem; how does your thesis resolve or explain the issue or question that you identified in your text and the criticism on it? Finally, your thesis should be responsive to your methodology; it should be the interpretation of your text that emerges when that text is looked at in the unique way in which you’re looking at it.

Evidence: In two or three sentences, provide an overview of the body of your paper, specifying what evidence and examples you use in the paper. Be as specific as possible.

Implications: The final thing an abstract must do is to indicate why any of this matters. Explain the intellectual pay-off of your paper, but be aware of certain traps. Don't act as though you've saved the world, and don't try to make your reader a better person. Instead, explain how your interpretation produces transformative knowledge for a specific academic audience who has specific academic goals (usually a full and complete understanding of the subject upon which its discipline rests).