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Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses: Writing an Abstract

What is an abstract?

Note: This description of a typical abstract and its elements is geared toward researchers in the arts and humanities. Additional information on writing abstracts is available in Dr. Robert Labaree's libguide on organizing research in the social sciences.

An abstract is a summary of a paper, a book, or a presentation. As a general rule, the abstract is written by the author of the work. Most abstracts are informative.

Abstracts are a required part of graduate theses and dissertations. Abstracts are common in academic and scholarly journal articles, as well as in conference presentations and publications of proceedings. The author, the title, and the abstract are the most immediately visible elements of a work of scholarship that other researchers see as they peruse scholarly databases and publications. These are also the elements that may be indexed by search engines such as Google.

Stylistic guidelines: Use active verbs, when possible, and write in complete sentences. Try to imagine yourself in the shoes of a reader who is not familiar with your work, and who might be reading the abstract to decide on the importance and relevance of your research.

An informative abstract

A common type of abstract is informative. Such an abstract is usually about 300-500 words in length. It is usually composed after the conclusion of the writing of the work, and acts as a surrogate for the work itself.

Generally speaking an informative abstract should include at least the following elements:

1) an overall description of the topic explored;

2) the theoretical, historical, or methodological framework used;

3) an outline of the main argument(s);

4) a brief summary of the conclusion(s).

A descriptive abstract

A somewhat less common type of abstract is descriptive. Descriptive abstracts are short, ordinarily 150 words or less, and briefly describe the work, almost in an outline format.