How to write an abstract that stands out

A well-written abstract helps to attract readership.

  • Andy Tay

Credit: vladwel/Getty Images

How to write an abstract that stands out

A well-written abstract helps to attract readership.

10 August 2021

Andy Tay

vladwel/Getty Images

The brevity of an abstract belies its importance to a manuscript. It’s what catches a reader’s attention and helps them to decide whether a paper is relevant. Yet failing to reflect the content of the paper in the abstract was singled out as the most common error in a recently published study of problems in biomedical manuscripts.

Nature Index spoke to researchers to get their suggestions for how to make abstracts eye-catching as well as accurate.

Carolina Quezada: Get writing practice as early as you can

Postdoctoral Fellow, Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins (Chile) and member of the eLife Early Career Advisory Group

A well-written abstract should highlight clearly and in an engaging way what is most special about the research findings to its potential audience. An excellent abstract should be interesting and accessible to all potential readers including non-experts.

Carolina Quezada

Carolina Quezada

It is important for scientists to get practice writing abstracts as early as possible and seek out formal training opportunities within their schools and professional networks. Even if one writes well in technical and academic language, it does not necessarily make one able to communicate science properly to non-experts, and this skill is becoming more valued.

Regarding that, journals have started introducing ‘layman abstracts’, which are written for the public and researchers who are new to the field. I find them particularly useful because more people can better appreciate the value of the research.

At the eLife Early Career Advisory Group, we have also led efforts to involve more early-career researchers in editing and peer reviews, and I hope more journals can consider having similar initiatives. When researchers are able to get more experience reading, comparing and evaluating abstracts, they can also develop into better writers, and that benefits the entire scientific community.

Simone Schürle-Finke: Don’t overhype your research; know the purpose of your abstract

Group Head, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (Switzerland)

An abstract helps to draw attention to a manuscript and there may be pressure to overhype the findings. A good abstract should avoid that; one way to do so is to be quantitative. In my papers, I like to make use of numbers to state findings or compare my technology with state-of-the-art techniques.

Simone Schürle-Finke

Simone Schürle-Finke

I also find it most helpful to write an abstract after the main body of a manuscript is written. At this stage of paper writing, I am very familiar with the narrative and data and will be able to take a step back to look at the big picture. This can help me summarise key findings of my paper and their limitations so I can communicate them in the abstract accurately.

Researchers write abstracts for many purposes and it is important to differentiate them as they can differ in their emphasis. When I write a paper abstract, there is greater focus on the findings. On the other hand, for a grant abstract, when the purpose is to get funding, the emphasis is on specific aims and potential implications of the project. A well-written abstract needs to be able to capture the essence of its purpose.

Esra Senol: Seek advice from peers and learn from published work

PhD student, National University of Singapore

A challenge I face while writing abstracts is not knowing how much background to include. Some journals provide specific information such as how many lines for background introduction in abstract, but most don’t. To overcome this challenge, I try to get feedback from my inner circle, such as colleagues in the same field and peers who are outside my field.

Esra Senol

Esra Senol

I find suggestions from non-expert scientists helpful because as experts of a field, I may have technical blind spots. Editors who decide whether to send papers out for peer review may not be experts in my field. Getting advice from non-expert researchers has enabled me to better communicate the value of my research through abstracts.

Researchers can face difficulties writing in English especially when it is not their first language. Although my scientific training is in English, I realise that I may not always express myself as well as native writers. To improve my abstract writing skills, I would read many top, highly-cited papers in my field and also learn from published work in the journals I am targeting to submit to.