How to Write an Abstract for a Paper


See also: How to Write any Essay

How to Write an Abstract for a PaperAbstracts are the short (usually 100-700 words) paragraphs you see printed in research journals that describe whatever is in the actual research paper. Any essay that is published usually comes with an abstract.

Used to help readers determine whether or not they need to read your whole paper, the abstract is similar to the blurbs on the backs of novels: it summarizes the salient points to engage the reader with your work.

What kind of abstract are you writing?

There are two types of general abstracts that you will write: informational, and descriptive. Each has different characteristics that will help you determine which you should be using for your paper.

Informational Abstracts

Scientific and research papers tend to be informational. An informational abstract is usually on the longer end of the spectrum, as you have to include a detailed summary on:

  • The purpose, method, scope, results, conclusions, and recommendations of your study
  • The pertinent numbers and statistics
  • Other information that can be found in the paper (see more here)

Descriptive Abstracts

Descriptive abstracts are on the shorter end of the spectrum because they only describe the contents of the paper. Rather than summarizing all of your data, you just describe what reading the paper will tell the reader.

  • Describe the purpose, method, and scope of the paper
  • Introduce the subject matter and place it in context
  • Ultimately, the reader must read the paper to get statistics, conclusions, and/or recommendations

No matter what formatting guidelines you follow, you will be writing either an informational or a descriptive abstract for your paper. Be sure to reference the journal or assignment to determine which you need. Generally, scientific papers require informational abstracts while humanities’ papers require descriptive abstracts.

MLA Abstract Formatting Guidelines

Many MLA papers do not require an abstract. However, if you do, you will need to include your abstract on a separate page that follows the cover page but precedes your first page of writing. Format it the same way that you formatted the rest of your paper:

  • 12 point Times New Roman font
  • double-spaced
  • 1-inch margin

And the same way that you formatted your title page:

  • Include the header “Abstract”
  • The abstract can be either on top of or in the center of the page
  • It should be justified left; like a normal paragraph
  • It should be on its own page

Again, most MLA papers don’t require an abstract, so refer to your instructor or editor if you have further questions about formatting your abstract for MLA

APA Abstract Formatting Guidelines

Your abstract will appear on the second page of your paper: after the title page and before the actual writing starts. It will be formatted the same as the rest of your paper:

  • 12 point Times New Roman font
  • 1-inch margins
  • Page number in the top right corner
  • Running head in the top left corner

Don’t forget to include:

  • The “Abstract” header above your paragraph
  • If including keywords under your paragraph, an indented, italicized “Keywords:” follow by your keywords formatted as “APA, abstract, paper, hallelujah”
  • No period at the end of your keywords list

This article might help if you need more advice about formatting your abstract for APA.

How to Write an Abstract

  1. Write your paper. Don’t try to write the abstract before you finish the paper you need it for. Otherwise, you might mislead your potential reader.
  2. Decide whether you’re writing an informational or descriptive abstract. This may be pre-determined for you in the assignment or by the journal, but if not, decide which abstract best fulfills your objectives.
  3. Outline your paper. Summarize (or describe) your paper chronologically. Use scholarly language as much as possible.
  4. Revise. Make sure you included all of the pertinent information that you could.

A basic outline for your abstract would read as follows:

  • Why should your reader care about what your paper is about?
  • What did you do to learn about the problem? (Procedure)
  • What did you learn?
  • Does what you learned give your reader something to do as a result?

(Here is a good handout with sample abstracts and an outline if you need more information.)

Your abstract should not give new information but only summarize or describe what is in the paper. As short as they are, you’d think they’d be pretty easy to write; alas, summarizing your paper into a single paragraph is difficult. Hopefully this article helps.

What do you think—how do you determine whether or not to us an informational or descriptive abstract? What abstract-writing tips would you suggest? Share in the comments!

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