Why journal abstracts are really high stakes, and why they are (and should be) really hard to write

If you find writing abstracts easy, you are not writing good abstracts.

An uncomfortable truth?

This is something I was convinced of by Barbara Kamler a few years ago. I didn’t like it. But I was persuaded it is true.

Before then, and (worryingly!) since, I have been guilty of writing abstracts that aren’t great.

If you’re more of a video person you can watch a summary of the key points on the video below. If you’re more a words and text person, scroll down and read on!

 

Why abstracts matter

I’m talking those for journal articles (but also  book chapters, which increasingly have their own abstracts these days).

These abstracts are really really high stakes. A lot rides on them. They can do a huge amount of positive work, adding value, widening readership. But a poor abstract, or even a mediocre one, can undermine good work in the full paper.

Why?

  1. Abstracts are generally available to anyone with an internet connection. Full papers are often (at least for now) behind paywalls. Yes, lots of university libraries offer access, but this doesn’t cover all readers – by a long shot. Your abstract – those 200-250 words – might be the whole of your interaction with a reader. Every word, every sentence, every idea matters.
  2. Plenty of people might cite your work based only on reading the abstract. Hands up if you’ve cited something based on the abstract alone. I certainly have. And will do again. Not crucial texts, but things I need to have a passing knowledge of. If your abstract meets certain criteria (see below), people might just cite you based on it.
  3. Abstracts influence peer review, significantly.
    1. Editors get a first impression, and often make a preliminary judgement based on the abstract (perhaps to desk reject, perhaps to send for review and who might be a good reviewer). They might then dip into the full paper, but the abstract is their first contact and preliminary feelings might be hard to change (particularly if negative, eg feeling a paper is out of scope, offers nothing new).
    2. Reviewers agree or not to review based in part on the abstract. The abstract is usually all they get to see before saying yes or no. If it is written in a clear, engaging, persuasive way, promising something interesting and new, a review is more likely to say yes. And you want reviewers to say yes, because the more who say no, the further down the list of potential reviewers you fall, and this means they are likely to be less ‘ideal’, less well-placed to review your paper, and more just who says yes.
    3. Then if you do get a reviewer saying yes, your abstract has set up their expectations. If your paper drifts away from it, they are likely to get grumpy and be less favourable, less tolerant of minor errors – because they have given up their time, for free, based on a mis-sold premise. A lie.
  4. Abstracts can persuade readers to read the full paper (download it, contact you, look for a free version in an institutional repository).

 

So, abstracts are far from a summary of a larger text for the time-short reader. They really, really matter. So, we should be aiming to write really really good abstracts. Not just okay ones.

To understand why good abstracts are hard to write, we have to first understand the work that abstracts need to do.

 

What do abstracts need to do?

A good abstract:

  1. Captures your argument, message, or point – leaving readers with a clear understanding of what you are saying – while also encouraging people to read the whole paper.
  2. Communicates why this argument is important and distinctive; not leaving them to figure out what the novelty is here; nor leaving them to figure out why it matters.
  3. Persuades readers why this argument is robust – why they should take it, and take you, seriously. This often relies on methodological details.
  4. Sets up expectations so when people read the full paper, they get what they were hoping for.

 

Abstracts as tiny texts

One thing that Barbara Kamler said in the workshop I attended, was that abstracts are tiny texts (an idea she has written about with Pat Thomson; Pat has also written about an expanded version of the idea here).

My understanding of this is that abstracts are not simply a cut and paste shorter version or summary of a longer piece.

They are a genre of their own. They have their own rules, logics, criteria for excellence.

 

"Good papers have good abstracts behind and in front of them"

 

As tiny texts abstracts can do work not just for your readers, but for you. The thinking that goes into writing a really good abstract (or as Pat says, a range of tiny texts) can make the ‘full’ writing better. I think a good abstract underpins good paper-writing. But it can also lead it, be out ahead of it. Which is why I would advocate putting some serious time into writing an abstract, with a particular journal in mind, before starting to write the whole paper. (And then revising the abstract to make sure the two are aligned with one another).

 

Why are abstracts so difficult to write?

Abstracts are, and should be, hard to write. If you’re finding it hard because you are struggling over word choice, sentence structure, flow and other things amid the tight word economy of the abstract: yay! It means you’re in with a chance of writing a good one.

Abstracts are inherently dense texts, that should be experienced by readers as clear, logical and persuasive.

No reviewer ever said ‘that abstract was too clear’.

The trick – one of the key demands and difficulties – is to convey a lot of information (meeting all those needs mentioned above), while leaving readers thinking it was easy to read, understand and follow.

Dense does not often sit effortlessly alongside easy and clear when we describe writing.

 

Semantic waves

An idea I find really appealing and helpful here is the semantic wave. An abstract has to have both general, abstract (!) content, as well as specific, concrete content. The semantic wave is about smooth movement between these two. I find it useful to look at my abstract drafts and try to find where I am in one part of the wave, where I’m in another, and how I move between them. No rough, sudden breaks.

 

Wordsmithing

When I read really good abstracts I am struck by how particular words work, and the work they do. Words like ‘essential’ or ‘vital’ attach value. Words like ‘So…’ convey logical flow (I’ve written about that elsewhere). Words that announce novelty and originality are key. Words that assert a position and voice, especially in the conclusions and argument, can make all the difference.

In a tight word economy, it is easy to be occupied with the number of words. But the choice of words is so important, too.

And in this economy, I would argue that every sentence should say something about your study (perhaps excluding a very short opener about a general topic). Sentences 100% about existing work are risky: they communicate nothing about your work. Consider the difference between:

  • Existing research shows that poor abstracts are a common reason for rejection in academic publishing.
  • This paper builds on evidence that poor abstracts are a common reason for rejection in academic publishing.

The second one is only two words longer, but says something (valuable) about the study.

 

Structure and flow

What (rhetorical) moves are you making? Are they in the best order? Do you leave readers in doubt and then fix it later? (not good, I’d argue). Does your final comment resonate and echo your opener?

 

Some things that really annoy me in abstracts

I read a lot of abstracts. As an editor, as someone who is asked frequently to review for other journals. I probably read more abstracts than any other kind of academic text.

And I see patterns. And I develop reactions to things (justified or not). Here are some things that particularly irritate me.

  1. “Findings will be presented and implications discussed”. No sh!t Sherlock. I see statements bordering on this from time to time. Utterly vacuous (except perhaps if you’re writing for a conference and don’t know your findings yet, but still, it’s a cop-out).
  2. “Four themes were identified and will be outlined”. What four themes? I am not going to cite someone because they found four themes. The number is irrelevant. I need to know what they are so I can judge their relevance, interest and novelty.
  3. “I will save my argument for people who can (afford to) access the full paper”. I don’t see this directly, but I do read plenty of abstracts that don’t give the final argument and landing point. That is essentially withholding key information and messages for a select group of people. Unfair on the others, and damaging to your chances of being cited.

 

So that is why I say:

If you find writing abstracts easy, you are not writing good abstracts. But it is really worth the effort to meet the many demands of good abstract-writing.

 

 

 

 

 

1 thought on “Why journal abstracts are really high stakes, and why they are (and should be) really hard to write

  1. Sarah Stewart

    Thanks for this timely reminder, Nick. Have been agonising over an abstract and feel better about taking so long about it now!

    Reply

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