An abstract is a concise, self-contained and powerful statement describing a larger work to follow. Completeness, clear and succinct presentation, and evidence of energy to demonstrate how the paper will hook the audience are all important features.
Bear in mind that the typically conference paper is only 15 to 18 minutes in length including time for a few questions. Any given paper may be one of three, four or five, presented in a block. Even the paper must be focused on the highlights, not a full report of all your work in detail. Abstract and paper both need to be clear and high interest. The abstract must further be reduced to the essence what you’ll present. Writing an effective abstract takes thought and practice. Some principles to consider are:
1) Be sure you have something to say! You need a strong idea that adds to existing knowledge or demonstrates its application well. You also need to know your idea builds on prior work and will be of interest to the audience at the conference.
If your paper is empirical (qualitative or quantitative but drawing on newly collected data) be sure the data is all collected and fully analyzed. It is generally not OK to submit materials that are in process because you can not say what the yield is and therefore can not say how your work adds to knowledge. It is OK to submit pilot data and analysis – but it must be completed. (Pilot as in partial or preliminary.)
2) Use a clear, succinct title. A catchy title is great, but only so long as it gets across what you are presenting. Both the reviewers and the potential audience need to understand what you are presenting. Why the Dinosaurs Died may be a great quote from a participant in your study of children’s knowledge of HIV, but it is also an inside joke not everyone will get (and you have to explain it in the limited word count you have available.) Stick to word limits. Use colons to join phrases without extra words. Drop articles like and and the as necessary. Some telegraphing is OK so long as each sentence makes sense on its own.
3) Follow the recommended format even if you must adapt it a bit. Research conferences sometimes offer a medical or positivist format as a model: Purpose, methods, results, implications. Put the information you feel is important in one category or another to get your ideas across: Purpose can include some literature review or a rationale for using an unusual method. Methods might also be a location for a rationale or caveats. Results can be brief and summary or lengthy. Implications should reiterate why the paper is important.
Be sure the opening paragraph includes information on the importance of the paper.
Some authors add background as an initial category and discus the importance of the paper in it. This section later ties into implications for closure or synthesis in the abstract as a whole.
You may want to include a link to the overall conference theme in your proposal. However but bear in mind the many peer reviewers may not even know what it is!
4) Be sure your submission covers all the dimensions on which it will be evaluated. Find the criteria for evaluation. If they include originality, be sure to use this word and say what is original about the paper. If relevance to social work practice is a criterion, use this phrase and make the relevance plain. Many papers omit information on evaluation methods and so get rated low and are not accepted. Covering all the evaluative criteria is a simple formula that serves to guide the peer reviewers through why your paper should be accepted. Sadly it does not insure acceptance.
5) Use powerful language. Use the active voice. Use present tense or past tense; not future tense. Future tense makes it appear that the work is not yet completed. Active verbs show the reader what you will present. Be clear. Make sure key terms appear in the abstract, using the same level of language you will use in the paper. Adjectives and adverbs should be used minimally. Consider deleting them to reduce the total number of words. If necessary, put them back in your actual paper.
6) Include keywords on your topic where possible. These words or phrases show knowledgeable reviewers/readers that you have a sense of the general area and help them focus in on your topic specifically.
7) Stick to word limits – but use all the available words. I am amazed at submissions that seem vague but use only 250 words of a 500 word limit. In Word, drag to highlight a paragraph, and then use the Tools, Word Count features to count your words.
8) Stick to the limits on references – and cite them very sparingly in the abstract text. If references are treated as words in the abstract text, use very few of them. It is wise to demonstrate familiarity with the relevant literature, but this may require very few references. Try to use references as an add on to show your familiarity with the literature while not taking words from your abstract word count. If there is a separate reference section for your submission, use as many references or words in references as is allowed. Note that many abstracts use no in text citations.
9) Use a conventional font like Times New Roman, 12 pitch in size. Bear in mind that electronic submissions may strip any fancy formatting you use, making it useless effort (even the correct APA formatting on reference lists).
You may want to use the Save As feature of your word processor to format your abstract in rich text file format. Rich text files (filename.rtf) strip fancy formatting but leave the core text.
10) Do not define terms or include information not apparent in the paper. Do not be too clever.
Tables or charts are usually not allowed in abstracts but are great in the presentation!
Always include a reference list in your actually presentation - even if you handout PowerPoint slides – this is scholarship (and your reputation).
text copyright by J. Drisko 2/2/08, updated 9/28/12