Whether you have written your paper in English, German, or any other language, you may be obliged to submit an abstract in English as well. Regulations for PhD dissertations in the Humanities at German universities (including Hamburg) often require them, and a number of journals may publish German-language articles but nonetheless insist on abstracts in English as well. So how do you go about it? This post assumes that you are starting with content in a different language from English, but many of the points are the same.
This brief video has been extracted from a workshop offered on how to write an abstract in English. You may notice some points which are relevant to academic writing overall, but you will find that they are that much more important here. If you are not sure if this is the kind of abstract you are supposed to write, check the post on disambiguation.
Essentially, writing an abstract entails four straightforward steps.
Revising for concision
Revising for cohesion, i.e. flow
Revising for correctness
I will go through each in a bit more detail.
So the main thing at this stage is knowing what is included in an abstract. Reading a number of them should give you a good idea of what is common in your field, but here is a list which is applicable pretty much anywhere.
- the context or background of your research
- the research question you seek to answer or problem you intend to solve
- your claim/thesis, i.e. the proposed answer to the question / solution to the problem
- your theoretical approach and/or empirical methodology
- the results or findings of your research
- your conclusions and the consequences of your findings
- key words for your paper, not only as a list, but also in the content of your abstract
As you can see, there is in fact quite a bit of information which must make its way into your abstract. Also apparent is that each of these points probably reflects a substantial section of your paper. So the best way to start here is simply to draft a clear sentence about each of these points. While the abstract needs to be able to stand alone without the article, do not repeat or rephrase the title, as the abstract will not be read without that. Also, do not include anything that is not in the article or dissertation, and make an effort to emphasize the points of your abstract in the same proportion they are emphasized there. That is, if developing a new methodology is the main thrust of your paper, then focus on that in the abstract as well, but if the findings of applying a theory to a new set of data is more significant, draw the attention to that instead.
Revising for concision
Essential for an abstract, and often the hardest part, is brevity. That is, keeping it as short as possible. However, when you are expressing complex ideas and relations, simple sentences can be difficult. Thus, the title Keeping it short and serious, not short and simple. Concision generally requires a very strong vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean it has to be extremely broad, only that you have the precise, clear words for your meanings at your disposal. Let’s look at the main things you can do to make your writing more concise.
- Eliminate all the filler and redundant words (actually, in other words, it goes without saying that …).
- Keep the metadiscourse (nevertheless, we claim, observe here …) to a minimum.
- Delete words that repeat (also implicit) meanings of other words (final outcome, past history) and phrases that can be replaced with a single precise word (despite the fact that -> although; is able to -> can) .
- Avoid if possible trade names, acronyms, abbreviations, new technical terms or symbols that you would need to explain.
A few examples show you how applying some of these principles can help you to be more concise
Imagine someone trying to learn the rules for playing the game of chess.
-> Imagine learning the rules of chess.
The last point I would like to make is that in regard to men-women relationships, it is important to keep in mind that the greatest changes have occurred in the way they now work with one another.
-> Finally, the greatest changes in men-women relationsships have occurred in the way they work with one another.
->Men and women have changed their relationships most in how they work together.
Revision for cohesion
Cohesion is the smooth reading flow that is so important to English-speaking readers, but also makes it easier for all readers to follow your text easily. Since you just drafted your abstract by simply writing a single sentence to provide each of the points listed above, you probably didn’t create much in the way of flow, or connections between sentences. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you create cohesion in your abstract.
- Pronoun references (they, it) must be immediately clear.
- Linking phrases (therefore, whereas, additionally) can be useful in small numbers , but must be always correct! Pay close attention to rules of usage and syntax.
- The syntax must flow. Start sentences with old, familiar information and end them with the newer, more interesting conclusions. This may mean using the passive voice. (The collapse of a dead star into a point no larger than a marble creates a Black Hole. -> A Black Hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point no larger than a marble.)
Again, here are a few more examples to show particularly how the most difficult last principle can be applied to improve your writing. For a more in-depth treatment of cohesion, read more in a separate post.
It is impossible for his claims to be proved conclusively.
-> It is impossible to prove his claims conclusively.
-> His claims cannot be proved conclusively
A new political philosophy that could affect our society well into the next century may emerge from these studies.
->These studies may give life to a new political philosophy that could affect society well into the next century.
Revising for correctness
You may feel that you are not able to deal with correcting your own English, but there are a few steps you can take to make sure it is as good as possible (at least before asking a native speaker). Language accuracy has three major aspects when it comes to academic writing. In order of complexity, these are:
Orthography, i.e. spelling and punctuation, can be fairly easily dealt with if you just learn to set your text processing software to English and turn on the spelling and grammar checkers. Nonetheless, you will need to read through it carefully, knowing for example that a computer only knows that both from and form are words, and not which one you wanted in that sentence. While I, as a professional writer, do not always like Microsoft’s ideas of where to put commas, they should also be good enough for your purposes.
Vocabulary will be a bit more complex, but not much. Here the most important thing is that you know exactly which technical / discipline-specific terms are important here. Recall that some words can mean very different things in different contexts, and make sure you get the right key words for your subject area. This may require a bit of research, but it can be done by checking out just one or two authoritative sources in the area in English. Combine that with the precise words that help you to establish good connections, and you will be best off.
Finally, grammar is the most complex area for someone writing in a foreign language which perhaps has also not been used in a while. Here, again, the grammar checker in your system can be a big help, but on the other hand it will underline every single use of the passive voice. Disregard this! Remember that the passive voice can be extremely useful! Some writers have found Grammarly to be quite helpful in a pinch, but in the end, only a native speaker experienced with academic writing can help you make sure your language use is truly correct. Most important of all is that you don’t leave it to the last minute to write your abstract and can take enough time to make sure it is as good as possible.