Written by Patricia Sipes
Abstracts, while one of the shorter pieces a researcher writes, can often be one of the hardest. Many definitions include words like "powerful" and "self-contained" without supplying concrete imagery. The editors of Ellipsis... once described the abstract as the research/written equivalent of a movie trailer. Many times, abstracts are submitted before papers or as part of a presentation proposal; as such, your abstract is often the first part of the evaluation of your work, meaning that if people do not think the abstract is well written or interesting, they assume neither is the paper.
Despite how short abstracts are, they need to convey a large amount of information, at the heart of which is the central point of your paper. Again, using the movie trailer analogy, it needs to leave the audience with a taste for what the paper will offer as well as leaving them wanting to know more.
You should always tell a bit about your research process and how that is reflected in the final paper. Let us say that two people are examining a poem. The two end papers are almost guaranteed to look differently despite using the same base material. How each person looked at the poem--what theoretical lens or slant they took--directly impacts the end result. If you are looking at your research with particular insight or lenses, make sure to include that in your abstract. For example: you make take a feminist approach to your research or a socio-economic approach; in literature, you may take a specific field of theory (such as new criticism or post-modernism) and rigidly apply it. If you are using rigid lenses, your abstract should inform your audience of that.
Going back to our original analogy, movie trailers tend to use the director name as well as the stars' names to help sell the product. In an abstract, the main star is your central project point; however the director--particularly if you are utilizing primary material--is almost more important. If you utilize primary material in your research, be sure to include them and their housing location in your abstract. Again, make it explicitly clear that you are using primary material and where it came from.
In addition, your abstract needs to target your audience. Much how movie trailers can vary depending on where they are shown and who they are shown to, both your paper and abstract need to address your audience correctly. In general, unless you are presenting or publishing in specialized journals, keep your language simple and add in just enough background information for people to understand where your paper is coming from. Ellipsis... caters to what we term a broad, educated audience--which is what a lot of general research symposiums tend to do. This means you cannot assume that the persons reading your paper are from the same field or background, but in the same light, they are not general population. This is highly important to keep in mind when writing your abstract.
For the purpose of Ellipsis..., your abstract is limited to 250 words. However, throughout academia, there is no real fixed length for abstracts, some conferences want as few as 40 words, others allow upwards of 400. The key is to focus your abstract towards the audience and say as succintly as possible the most important components of your project.
Do not be intimidated by abstracts! It can take a few tries (or seven, in personal experience) before you come up with the perfect one. One of the best ways to set up your abstract is to make a chart or list of the important parts you want to cover in your abstract. Believe it or not, the old trick of filling in the question words (who, what, when, where, why, and so what?) gives you a pretty solid base to start putting together your abstract. If it gets too frustrating, take a break, talk it over with someone. It is additionally helpful to try explaining your project to someone that does not know what you are doing, often what you tell them is exactly what your abstract should say.
Additionally, your paper title can often direct the way in which your abstract is written. If your title contains a metaphor, run with that in your abstract. It will not only give you some insight on how to write your abstract, but shows your audience a cohesion of thought through the continued metaphor.