Write great abstracts
Abstracts are powerful 'short stories' that are used in journal articles and conference presentations. An abstract will help reviewers to decide whether to accept your paper, conference abstract or grant application, and help readers to decide whether to read your paper or attend your presentation. Often people will read only the abstract of a paper (even if they cite it), so it is crucial that your abstract gets your message across. Thus, when it comes to writing abstracts, it is worth the effort to do this well. This Getting Started Guide provides tips and information to assist you with this exercise.
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a short piece of writing that presents the essential elements of a larger work in a powerful manner. It is usually no more than 150 to 500 words. Abstracts are written for various reasons, the most common being for:
- Information - to assist readers to decide quickly if they should read the entire paper (which they may have to purchase) or attend the conference presentation
- Selection - used by journal editors and conference scientific review committees to determine whether the work will be accepted for review or for a conference presentation
- Indexing - in online databases with search features.
Abstract structure and content
An abstract should tell readers what the issue is (background), why it warrants investigation or analysis (purpose), how you have done this (method), and what you have found and concluded (results and conclusions).
Sometimes abstracts are single paragraphs without any defined sections. Often, however, they are required to conform to a scientific structure with headings such as Aims, Methods, Results, Conclusion. For the Primary Health Care Research Conference, for example, the specified structure is:
- Title: clearly but concisely explain what your work is about; include the main keywords but avoid using more than 12 words
- Context and Aims: put the work in context and explain why the research is important
- Methods: describe the study design, data collection and analysis methods in brief
- Findings: (the most important section) present the key findings, supported by relevant data (but not tables or graphs)
- Innovative contribution to policy, practice and/or research: explain the significance and value of the findings, highlight contribution to the field, and present implications for the future.
It is generally best to limit the use of acronyms, abbreviations or symbols in the abstract. However, if you have to repeatedly write 'Commission on Social Determinants of Health' (for example), it might be appropriate to use the acronym 'CSDH' (after defining it in the first instance).
Similarly, it is generally best not to cite any references. Occasionally, however, it might be appropriate to cite a publication (e.g., a World Health Organization report) that is the focus of your abstract.
Strong abstracts include concise and precise language, with a good match between title and content. They present a summary of actual results (instead of noting that 'results will be discussed'); and rather than focusing on background material, they emphasise findings of the research and their implications.
Abstracts attract attention
An abstract that has a 'wow factor' will stand out because it makes an impact on the reader.
An abstract is read more often than the rest of your work. To attract attention, it should provide succinct information to readers, so that if it interests them, they will continue reading.
An abstract written for submission to a conference should link to the conference theme whenever possible.
For an abstract to be useful in a searchable online database, it needs to incorporate the key terms that a potential reader would use in their search so that it will be identified in any relevant search process.
Review, revise, and check the guidelines before submitting your abstract
Given that abstracts have to be short, make every word count. Revising and reviewing your abstract helps to achieve this. When revising, delete any superfluous words and use strong, meaningful words that convey a clear message.
Keep in mind that you are writing for an audience who may have limited knowledge of your research. Ask a colleague who is not familiar with your work to review and provide constructive comments on ways to improve and clarify your abstract.
Proofread your abstract yourself. Many people find that it is helpful to print it and read it on paper rather than on-screen.
Check that you have followed the guidelines set by the journal or conference call for abstracts regarding the structure and word count of the abstract. Reviewers usually use criteria based on these guidelines to determine what will be accepted, so it makes sense to follow the guidelines.
Abstracts are usually submitted online. Be aware that the submission process may not be simply pasting an abstract into a box; allow plenty of time to login and enter your contact details and other required information. Proofread your abstract again shortly before you submit it.
A summary version of this information is available in a two-page colour PHCRIS Fact Sheet
Useful PHCRIS resources
For examples of well written conference abstracts view those that were selected by the Australian Association for Academic Primary Care (AAAPC) for prizes at previous PHC Research Conferences.
2015 AAAPC Distinguished paper:
- CRISP: A NOVEL COLORECTAL CANCER RISK PREDICTION TOOL is it acceptable and feasible in Australian primary care clinics?
2014 AAAPC Distinguished paper:
2013 AAAPC Distinguished paper:
- Continuation of breastfeeding improves with collaborative motivational support in a cluster randomised controlled trial
2012 AAAPC Distinguished paper:
Andrade C. (2011). How to write a good abstract for a scientific paper or conference presentation. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(2), 172–175.
Higgins M, Eogan M, O’Donoghue K, Russell N. (2013). How to write an abstract that will be accepted. BMJ Careers
Ickes M J, Gambescia S F. (2011). Abstract art: How to write competitive conference and journal abstracts. Health Promotion Practice, 12(4), 493–496.
Macdonald R, Shaban R. (2007). Preparing a structured abstract for a presentation at a scientific conference. Journal of Emergency Primary Health Care, 5(2), 990248.
The Professor is in. (2011). How to write a paper or conference proposal abstract. Retrieved October 2017.
University of Melbourne. (n.d.) Writing an abstract: Understanding and developing abstracts. Retrieved October 2017. [PDF 118.7KB]
Feedback on this title
Was this guide useful? We welcome your comments and suggestions, please use the feedback form and let us know what you think.
Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (2017). PHCRIS Getting Started Guides: How to... Write great abstracts. From http://www.phcris.org.au/guides/writing_abstracts.php (Accessed 19 Nov 2017)