Thursday, April 2, 2015

Writing an Abstract

You’ve done the work (or almost have); your thesis or dissertation is pretty much finished! So now, you take another look at the Guidelines for Preparing a Thesis or Dissertation at NIU to see if there’s anything left to do. Oh, yes, write the abstract.

Your abstract should be the last thing you write because it is a summary—a very condensed one—of your entire thesis or dissertation. But how do you summarize all of that work? You probably have 100 – 300 pages of great ideas that, according to most sources, should be summed up in fewer than 350 words. NIU’s Thesis Office does not restrict your abstract’s word limit, but we do recommend that you stick to the 350-word maximum. To follow are some ideas that may help.

The Writing Center at University of North Carolina offers detailed tips. First, they distinguish between writing a descriptive or an informative abstract, saying that a descriptive abstract explains the work without assessing it and is very brief, virtually an outline. The UNC Writing Center tells that an informative abstract, the type most of us will write, does “more than describe” the work. This abstract stands in for one’s entire project and includes “purpose, methods, and scope,” like a descriptive one, but also has “results and conclusions” as well as “recommendations of the author.” According to UNC, “Abstracts allow readers … to quickly decide whether it is worth their time to read [a longer piece],” and we know how helpful these summations are from our own research.

The UNC site gives specific tips as to what to include for different types of abstracts and how to go about writing one. They say that all abstracts should consider the following questions: Why should a reader be interested in this work? What is the scope of the problem? What evidence or methods of study did this project utilize? What are the findings or results? And, how does this study add to the existing conversation? Check out their page for more tips, and scroll to the bottom for help in abstracting one’s own work. (FYI: at the end of that last sentence, this blog post reached 350 words in length!)

A beneficial thing to do when learning to write in any genre is to read examples. You can find all types of abstracts at Proquest Digital Dissertations (located under “Dissertation Abstracts” in the NIU Library’s list of A–Z Databases). Search any subject area, or type in a keyword and start reading abstracts!

Finally, advisors at University of Queensland in Australia offer a unique take on abstracts: they say that we should actually write abstracts as we work, calling this interim process a “useful tool” towards keeping ideas organized as well as “focusing thoughts” and “forging links” that ultimately will “unify” the final product. And don’t forget that you can come to NIU’s Thesis Office or The Writing Center at NIU for help with any part of the thesis/dissertation writing process!


  1. Abstract or precis writing needs great practice to do it right. Go to precis writing to read interesting article about it, if you searching it.

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