Here’s the abstract for a paper (that I haven’t written) on how to write an abstract:

How to Write an Abstract

The first sentence of an abstract should clearly introduce the topic of the paper so that readers can relate it to other work they are familiar with. However, an analysis of abstracts across a range of fields show that few follow this advice, nor do they take the opportunity to summarize previous work in their second sentence. A central issue is the lack of structure in standard advice on abstract writing, so most authors don’t realize the third sentence should point out the deficiencies of this existing research. To solve this problem, we describe a technique that structures the entire abstract around a set of six sentences, each of which has a specific role, so that by the end of the first four sentences you have introduced the idea fully. This structure then allows you to use the fifth sentence to elaborate a little on the research, explain how it works, and talk about the various ways that you have applied it, for example to teach generations of new graduate students how to write clearly. This technique is helpful because it clarifies your thinking and leads to a final sentence that summarizes why your research matters.

[I’m giving my talk on how to write a thesis to our grad students soon. Can you tell?]

Update 16 Oct 2011: This page gets lots of hits from people googling for “how to write an abstract”. So I should offer a little more constructive help for anyone still puzzling what the above really means. It comes from my standard advice for planning a PhD thesis (but probably works just as well for scientific papers, essays, etc.).

The key trick is to plan your argument in six sentences, and then use these to structure the entire thesis/paper/essay. The six sentences are:

  1. Introduction. In one sentence, what’s the topic? Phrase it in a way that your reader will understand. If you’re writing a PhD thesis, your readers are the examiners – assume they are familiar with the general field of research, so you need to tell them specifically what topic your thesis addresses. Same advice works for scientific papers – the readers are the peer reviewers, and eventually others in your field interested in your research, so again they know the background work, but want to know specifically what topic your paper covers.
  2. State the problem you tackle. What’s the key research question? Again, in one sentence. (Note: For a more general essay, I’d adjust this slightly to state the central question that you want to address) Remember, your first sentence introduced the overall topic, so now you can build on that, and focus on one key question within that topic. If you can’t summarize your thesis/paper/essay in one key question, then you don’t yet understand what you’re trying to write about. Keep working at this step until you have a single, concise (and understandable) question.
  3. Summarize (in one sentence) why nobody else has adequately answered the research question yet. For a PhD thesis, you’ll have an entire chapter, covering what’s been done previously in the literature. Here you have to boil that down to one sentence. But remember, the trick is not to try and cover all the various ways in which people have tried and failed; the trick is to explain that there’s this one particular approach that nobody else tried yet (hint: it’s the thing that your research does). But here you’re phrasing it in such a way that it’s clear it’s a gap in the literature. So use a phrase such as “previous work has failed to address…”. (if you’re writing a more general essay, you still need to summarize the source material you’re drawing on, so you can pull the same trick – explain in a few words what the general message in the source material is, but expressed in terms of what’s missing)
  4. Explain, in one sentence, how you tackled the research question. What’s your big new idea? (Again for a more general essay, you might want to adapt this slightly: what’s the new perspective you have adopted? or: What’s your overall view on the question you introduced in step 2?)
  5. In one sentence, how did you go about doing the research that follows from your big idea. Did you run experiments? Build a piece of software? Carry out case studies? This is likely to be the longest sentence, especially if it’s a PhD thesis – after all you’re probably covering several years worth of research. But don’t overdo it – we’re still looking for a sentence that you could read aloud without having to stop for breath. Remember, the word ‘abstract’ means a summary of the main ideas with most of the detail left out. So feel free to omit detail! (For those of you who got this far and are still insisting on writing an essay rather than signing up for a PhD, this sentence is really an elaboration of sentence 4 – explore the consequences of your new perspective).
  6. As a single sentence, what’s the key impact of your research? Here we’re not looking for the outcome of an experiment. We’re looking for a summary of the implications. What’s it all mean? Why should other people care? What can they do with your research. (Essay folks: all the same questions apply: what conclusions did you draw, and why would anyone care about them?)

The abstract I started with summarizes my approach to abstract writing as an abstract. But I suspect I might have been trying to be too clever. So here’s a simpler one:

(1) In widgetology, it’s long been understood that you have to glomp the widgets before you can squiffle them. (2) But there is still no known general method to determine when they’ve been sufficiently glomped. (3) The literature describes several specialist techniques that measure how wizzled or how whomped the widgets have become during glomping, but all of these involve slowing down the glomping, and thus risking a fracturing of the widgets. (4) In this thesis, we introduce a new glomping technique, which we call googa-glomping, that allows direct measurement of whifflization, a superior metric for assessing squiffle-readiness. (5) We describe a series of experiments on each of the five major types of widget, and show that in each case, googa-glomping runs faster than competing techniques, and produces glomped widgets that are perfect for squiffling. (6) We expect this new approach to dramatically reduce the cost of squiffled widgets without any loss of quality, and hence make mass production viable.


  1. Pro tip (step #7): Now break up some of those long sentences into shorter ones.

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  3. Genius indeed!

    But specifically for thesis abstracts —shouldn’t they be a bit longer than six sentences?

    [Why? – sme]

  4. Excellent – I’ve tweeted it to my massive crew of 46 followers :^)

    Now if I could just figure out where to store it in my own system so I could find it when I’m actually trying to write an abstract (or teach a student how to do so!)


  5. Hi Steve,

    very good. how do you compare your six sentences with the structure of Context, Objective, Methods, Limitations, Results, Conclusions of the structured abstract approach?


  6. I am in middle and I need steps to write an abstract for my Science fair project.My science teacher told me to write notes and I did, but then I lost them and don’t know ho to make an abstract.Can you make this paragraph into a series of steps?

  7. But I am sorry if only teachers can only post stuff on here.I just found this on google.

    [No, no restrictions; I just moderate the discussion to prevent spam etc. – Steve]

  8. For Emily: I’ve added a whole load of explanation. Hope that helps.

  9. Awesome example abstract. I’m definitely going to buy shares in your Googa Glomping Enterprises.

  10. I actually am presenting research at a conference and I need to submit my abstract in like 2 weeks, problem is I’ve never done a professional abstract, so I appreciate the help…

  11. very helpful – emailed to myself for future reference.

  12. I couldn’t focus on the abstract as I was laughing so much! Brilliant! Steve…it’s implied that you split up the sentences 🙂

  13. Wow, this was incredibly helpful for someone with little science background. Bookmarked! Thanks so much!

  14. thank you people who wrote this

  15. Kisses from Sweden

    Person who wrote this: I love you so much! A couple of hours ago, I didn’t even know where to begin. Now, instead of having begun writing an abstract that would no doubt have turned into an overdetailed, confusing mess, I’ve somehow managed to produce a decent half-page abstract for a ~150 pp. report. Thank you!!

  16. Thank you so much Steve, you rocks, really awesome. well i am scientist without PhD, but this article motivates me to do PhD.

  17. Excellent piece of information, brilliantly highlights the nuances of writting an excellent abstract. Very useful especially to non-native english speaking researchers/ writters

  18. THANK YOU!

  19. Pingback: How to write an Abstract for a Conference » The Conference Mentor

  20. Thank you. Im going to use this format to teach my students to write an abstract!

  21. Awesome! I’ve been looking for tips to write an abstract rather long. I’ve seen some nice samples here but it’s one of those rare cases when it’s better to read guidelines than to see an example.

  22. Thank you for writing this! Incredibly helpful, especially the explanations of the individual steps.

  23. Thank you very much for this now I can write my own

  24. You’ve just summered a master degree lecture in few lines. Clear and sharp. Tks

  25. Thanks great post.

  26. I am writting an abstract limitted to 300 words only ,for my presentation about” nurses, care cost effective.but dont know how to construct… any help?

  27. Thanks! Best guideline I came across so far. Super helpful! 🙂

  28. A+. Helped me write my first abstract. thanks!

  29. Thank you very much! I am confident now. Super tips!!!!!!!!

  30. Well written. Thanks so much. It helped my scattered brain immensely.

  31. Well all I can say is i got an A wait no hold up YOU GOT AN A

  32. Am so happy with the way you have mastered the skills of writing an abstract. It has really helped me thanx.

  33. would you mind to tell me what are the difference between thesis abstract and scientific abstract ?

  34. I use this approach a lot now, but I was wondering if you could post some examples of your abstracts that you’ve written using this technique. It would be interesting to see how the final result compares to the theory.

  35. Pingback: Resources: Writing an abstract | parkfinder

  36. I love this, like learning more of Abstracting. thanks pal

  37. Pingback: 41.How to Write a Scientific Abstract in six easy steps – Academic and Legal English

  38. Thank you! Thank you! Thank You! These steps helped me a lot. I was able to draft my abstract in less than 30 minutes! So impressed…

  39. Am grateful

  40. I just wanted to give you a heartfelt thanks. My master thesis is the first time I needed to create a formal proper abstract and I managed to write it in no time at all thanks to you. This has really been very helpful.

  41. My only suggestion would be in your guidelines, mention both how you did the work _and_ major findings. The major findings come across in your example (“…and show that in each case, googa-glomping runs faster than competing techniques, and produces glomped widgets that are perfect for squiffling…”) but are not covered in your guidelines. Now, to amazon to search for one of them glomped widgets.

  42. This saved my life., I’m writing a prac report for my science class and had no idea how to write an abstract! Thank you thank you thankyou so much for posting this, I’m definitely sharing it with my peers!

  43. This is amazing and very helpful – thank you so much!

  44. johnsykesgreenfields

    I used this approach to write the abstracts of two papers which were published in Applied Earth Science journal earlier this year, so in my opinion this approach really works:

    Transformational growth amongst the various critical metals’ markets would reduce supply concerns for industrial consumers and governments, whilst also providing commercial opportunities for the upstream industry. However, despite rapid market growth amongst some critical metal markets over the last decade, as a group they have lagged the market growth rates of the non-ferrous industrial and precious metals sectors. Research into the growth prospects of the critical metal markets is clearly required; however, their limited economic history and a paucity of data make this difficult. The economic history of the metals and mining industry as a whole, however, is better documented, and thus may provide insights into the potential for market growth amongst the critical metals. This paper therefore reviews the economic history of metals and mining, and in particular, that of the aluminium, nickel and uranium industries in an attempt to understand the key drivers behind transformational growth within the metals’ markets. This historical review suggests that a combination of breakthroughs in discovery, supply and demand are required to catalyse transformational market growth; and thus that parties seeking to benefit from the transformational growth of the critical metals’ markets must approach these markets in an integrated manner, considering each of the discovery, supply and demand issues in turn, rather than focusing on one specific constraint. (

    A ‘critical metal’ is one that has important economic uses, but which also faces supply risks for geopolitical or environmental and sustainability reasons. The constrained nature of critical metals supply means proposed solutions to the problem commonly involve reducing demand and therefore reliance, via recycling, substitution and thrifting. However, most critical metals are presently only small markets and therefore such an approach ignores the potential of transformational market growth to reduce supply risk, by creating large, diverse, transparent markets with multiple sources of primary mine supply, akin to modern base metals markets. Research is therefore required into which critical metals have the greatest potential for such transformational market growth. This study therefore conducts an evaluation of 49 critical metals to determine which are nearest to the combined breakthroughs in discovery, supply and demand that may lead to transformational market growth. The study concludes that 13 markets from the 49 critical metals, being magnesium, silicon, barium, boron, lithium, cobalt, chromium, vanadium, gallium, strontium, cerium, lanthanum and scandium have the highest potential for transformational market growth and thus efforts to resolve supply risk in these markets may be better focussed on overcoming current market constraints and growing these markets, rather than lessening reliance by reducing demand. (

    A pass on this blog to so many students. I even use it to help structure the introduction chapters of theses and papers, and whole theses/papers themselves.

    Great stuff!!!!

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