nutshell

How to Write an Abstract

By Joseph Wallace

An abstract of a work, usually of an essay, is a concise summary of its main points. It is meant to concentrate the argument of a work, presenting it as clearly as possible.

The abstract often appears after the title and before the main body of an essay. If you are writing an abstract as part of an assignment, you should check with your instructor about where to place it.

Here are a few guidelines to follow when composing an abstract:

  • In general, avoid too much copying and pasting directly from your essay, especially from the first paragraph. An abstract is often presented directly before an essay, and it will often be the first thing readers consult after your title. You wouldn’t repeat your ideas verbatim in the body of your essay, so why would you do that in an abstract? Consider the abstract part of the work itself. 
  • Start off strong. An abstract should be a mini essay, so it should begin with a clear statement of your argument. This should be the first sentence or two.
  • Abstracts vary in length. But a good rule is to aim for five to seven sentences. The bulk of the abstract will review the evidence for your claim and summarize your findings.
  • Avoid complicated syntax. Long sentences and intricate phrasing have their place in essays, but the abstract should be concise. It is not the place for ambitious grammar.
  • The last sentence or two should point to any conclusions reached and the direction future research might take. Like the first sentence, the last should be provocative and direct. Leave your readers wanting to read your essay.

In what follows, the authors have written an effective abstract that adheres to the basic principles above:

Literary critics have long imagined that T. S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood (1920) shaped the canon and methods of countless twentieth-century classrooms. This essay turns instead to the classroom that made The Sacred Wood: the Modern English Literature extension school tutorial that Eliot taught to working-class adults between 1916 and 1919. Contextualizing Eliot’s tutorial within the extension school movement shows how the ethos and practices of the Workers’ Educational Association shaped his teaching. Over the course of three years, Eliot and his students reimagined canonical literature as writing by working poets for working people—a model of literary history that fully informed his canon reformation in The Sacred Wood. This example demonstrates how attention to teaching changes the history of English literary study. It further reveals how all kinds of institutions, not just elite universities, have shaped the discipline’s methods and canons. (Buurma and Heffernan)

This abstract uses the first two sentences to establish the essay’s place in its field of study and to suggest how it intervenes in existing scholarship. The syntax is direct and simple. The third sentence begins to outline how the authors will support their argument. They aim to demonstrate the relevance of Eliot’s teaching to his ideas about literature, and so they move next to discuss some of the details of that teaching. Finally, the abstract concludes by telling us about the consequences of this argument. The conclusion both points to new directions for research and tells us why we should read the essay. 

Work Cited

Buurma, Rachel Sagner, and Laura Heffernan. Abstract. “The Classroom in the Canon: T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature Extension Course for Working People and The Sacred Wood,” PMLA, vol. 133, no. 2, Mar. 2018, p. 463.

Published 5 December 2018

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