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Writing Tips: How To Write an Abstract

How To Write an Abstract/Prospectus

Abstract vs. Research Proposal (Plan) or Prospectus

An abstract usually acts as a summary of work already completed and is used by prospective readers to decide whether or not to read the entire text.  Abstracts are usually found immediately preceding a research document (such as a thesis or dissertation), and/or in professional journals and abstract indexes (both online and in hard copy).   An abstract should represent as much as is possible the quantitative and qualitative information in the document, and also reflect its reasoning. Social science disciplines that use APA (American Psychological Association) style require abstracts to precede the larger paper (see the most recent edition of the APA style guide, Section 1.07, for more information), whereas humanities disciplines often do not require abstracts.  Conference abstracts are used to propose paper topics/panel sessions at professional conferences in your disciplines and require slightly different rhetorical methods (see summary on conference abstracts below).

A research proposal (plan) or prospectus usually acts as the first step in producing a thesis/dissertation or a major research project.  Its intent is to convince a supervisor or academic committee that your topic and approach are sound, so that you can gain approval to proceed with the actual research and also often so you can gain funding for that research.  As well as indicating your plan of action, a prospectus or academic proposal should show your theoretical positioning and your relationship to past work in your research area.

It is important that you spend some time thinking and drafting your prospectus/research proposal or abstract since the quality of these documents is often solely responsible for whether or not your paper is accepted to a conference, whether or not your research project is approved, and/or whether or not you receive funding for a research project.  Your abstract or prospectus/research proposal is literally a "first impression" to your reader/audience, one that you want to make positively.  Thus, you should consider writing more than one draft and beginning your drafting process early; a Writing Center visit, is, of course, always advisable!


Typically, an informative abstract answers these questions in 100-250 words:

  • Why did you do this study or project?

  • What did you do and how?

  • What did you find?

  • What do your findings mean?

If your paper is about a new method or apparatus, the last two questions might be changed to:

  • What are the advantages (of the method or apparatus)?

  • How well does it work?

Some points to keep in mind while writing abstracts:

  • While drafting your abstract:  look over your subject to see what disciplinary assumptions are challenged; question the significance of your ideas; emphasize the important results and address limitations in a realistic manner.

  • An abstract will nearly always be read along with the title, so do not repeat or rephrase your title.  It will likely be read without the rest of the document, however, so make it complete enough to stand on its own.

  • Your readers expect you to summarize your conclusions in an abstract, as well as your purposes, methods and main findings.  Emphasize the different points of your study in proportion to the emphasis they receive in the body of the document.

  • DO NOT refer in the abstract to information that is not in the document.  This is very important and is a little like "truth in advertising." You do not want to give your reader the impression that your study covers information it does not actually contain.

  • Avoid using the first person "I" or "we."  In addition, whenever possible, choose active verbs instead of passive ones (ex:  use "the study tested" instead of "it was tested by the study" or "I tested in the study").

  • Avoid, if possible, using trade names, acronyms, abbreviations or symbols in your abstract.  You would have to explain these names which would take up valuable room/words.

  • Use non-evaluative language in your abstract; report instead of comment upon your findings.

  • Use key words from the document to help indexers more accurately index your document for future research.

  • Ease your readers/audience into your topic.  Or, in other words, be sensitive to the needs and knowledge of your audience.  What might seem perfectly obvious to you after working on a longer writing or research project will often be brand-new to your audience.

  • Don't procrastinate!  It is best to write the abstract immediately after you finish your project while the ideas are still fresh in your mind.  

  • Helpful hint:  Some writing instructors and experienced writers suggest writing an abstract for all of your writing projects since it makes you focus on what is important in your paper/project.  It also provides a powerful way of reevaluating your logic and in defining your purpose. An abstract can be extremely helpful in your writing process if you are stuck or blocked.

Remember, a well written abstract often can ensure wide publication since many computerized databases and printed indexes reprint abstracts so scholars can keep up with each other's work, and  associations and corporations often publish abstracts in given fields and mail them to appropriate researchers and scholars, etc.  Thus, if you want to ensure that your work has an impact on your field, you should work as hard as possible in presenting a precise and engaging abstract.  

A conference abstract is an abstract that you submit for consideration to present a paper at a professional conference.  It is usually much longer than a summary abstract and functions independently from the paper it is based on (since the conference review committee will see it and not your actual paper).  Thus, your primary audience for the conference abstract is the conference review committee. The conference participants -- to whom you will actually deliver your paper -- are your secondary audience.  In addition to impressing the conference reviewing committee, your purpose in writing a conference abstract is to create a "research space" from which to write/present and to appeal to as large an audience as possible.

  Research Proposal (Plan) or Prospectus

An academic research proposal or prospectus is expected to contain these elements:

  • A rationale for the choice of topic, showing why it is important or useful within the concerns of the discipline in which you are writing.  It is sensible also to indicate the limitations of your aims.  In other words, don't promise what you can't possibly deliver.

  • A review of existing published work ("the literature") that relates to a topic.  Here you need to tell how your proposed work will build on existing studies and yet explore new territory.

  • An outline of your intended approach or methodology (with comparisons to existing published work), perhaps including costs, resources needed, and a timeline of when you hope to get things done

Particular disciplines have different ways of organizing a research proposal or prospectus. As such, it is wise to ask within your department what the standard guidelines are in organizing your research proposal/prospectus.  Research proposals/prospectuses are often longer than abstracts (up to 500 words).  Often it is helpful to begin with a research question that you would like to investigate/attempt to answer.  

Other general tips in putting together a research proposal/prospectus include:

  • Start with why your idea is worth doing (its contribution to the field), then fill in how you will address your idea (the technicalities about the topic and method).

  • Give enough detail to establish the feasibility of your proposal, but not so much as to bore your reader.

  • Show your ability to deal with possible problems or changes in focus (which will often happen in a longer research project or thesis/dissertation).

  • ***Show confidence and eagerness by using the first person "I," as well as using active verbs, concise style and positive phrasing.

Some other tips to get you started

  • Look closely at departmental specifications (about timing, scope, length, readers, etc.).  Remember, standards for abstracts, research proposals (plans) or prospectuses vary widely from discipline to discipline, journal to journal, conference to conference, and rhetorical situation to rhetorical situation.  
  • Ask other students (undergraduate as well as graduate) in your department about their experiences with this type of writing; look at past abstracts, research proposals (plans) and prospectuses for examples.
  • Try out your ideas with as wide an audience as possible, especially with your supervisor and/or committee members (informal discussions, drafts, preliminary meetings, presentations at colloquia, etc.).  Or, of course, use the services of the Writing Center as an additional audience!
  • ***Show why your research idea is interesting within your research field by discussion of what other scholars/writers have done and not done with your topic in your field.
  • ***Show that you can carry out your project by sketching your methodology.
  • Limit your promises/scope:  exclude topics and methods that you will not address and outline those that you will use.
  • Gain your reader's interest early by using active language and enthusiasm in your topic! 
  • Don't confuse verb tenses:  use present tense to describe results with continuing applicability or conclusions drawn; use the past tense to describe specific variables manipulated or tests applied; and future tense to project research and predict findings.  Avoid "boilerplate sentences" which take up room and provide no real information (ex:  "Policy implications are discussed" or "It is concluded that," etc.).
  • ALWAYS USE FULL SENTENCES and avoid negatives like "cannot," "never," etc.  Avoid abbreviations, jargon, symbols and other language shortcuts that might lead to confusion.
  • Above all, don't procrastinate!!!  Delay just isolates you and drains your energies.

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Friday, 08-Nov-2013 14:52:50 PST
Friday, 08-Nov-2013 14:52:50 PST