How to Begin an Abstract

Abstracts help a journal's editors decide if they are interested in reading the rest of the article.

An abstract summarizes the contents of an academic paper. Abstracts precede many articles in academic journals of the sciences and humanities. They tell the reader the point of the paper, its argument, major points and the conclusion it reaches based on its findings. The first sentence of an abstract introduces a problem or outlines a gap in current research in a particular area. In other words, it seeks to establish the relevance or significance of the paper.

Ascertain the importance of your paper. Ask yourself what need it meets, what gap in current research it seeks to fill or what problem it addresses. Think about why you decided to write this paper, or how you were incited to discuss the central idea of your paper. Perhaps you noticed a contradiction in current theories or thought trends regarding your topic.

Outline the problem your abstract addresses or your motivation for writing in a few brief phrases or statements. Don’t worry about perfect sentence structure, grammar or flow at this point; just try to get your ideas down on paper.

Form your rough outline into one or two clear, direct and concise sentences in active voice. These sentences should describe the problem your paper addresses. For example: “Analyses of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ often focus on explaining Hamlet’s insanity, or lack thereof, through a myriad of approaches, including psychology, religion and feminism. What these literary studies rarely consider, however, is how Shakespeare’s audience itself would have interpreted Hamlet’s dramatic mood swings.” These statements identify a problem and hint at the approach of the paper.

Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.