How to write an abstract
[This short piece has been hit or shared hundreds of times on facebook, on the ASLI website, and on the Onati Community blog. I am gratified that it seems to have filled a seriously large hole in the academic-how-to literature!]
Every year I read hundreds of abstracts for conference slots, fellowship or scholarship applications, journal submissions, to introduce published articles, and for many other purposes. I notice that the concept and preparation of an abstract seems to be a very culturally-specific exercise, probably determined by expectations within a particular scholarly community – but they may not serve the purpose well when applied internationally. Accordingly, here is some guidance as to how to do a good abstract that will inform the reader and attract the attention of decision-makers.
Q: What is an abstract for?
An abstract is a way of indicating what your paper is about and should be written in a way that enables the reader almost instantaneously to judge whether what you have written is interesting or useful, or into what category of literature or inquiry it falls. Typically an abstract is used to submit for a conference slot, or as a heading for a published piece, or for a research funding application.
Q: What do you mean by ‘about’?
Yes, ‘about’ can have several meanings. Knowing that a paper is ‘about’ intellectual property law is only marginally useful. What you need to convey is what your argument is and why that might be interesting to the reader. You need to sell your work and persuade the reader to read on.
Q: How long should it be?
It should be extremely concise. Length depends partly on what is demanded (e.g. ‘maximum 300 words’) and what your point is. Err on the side of being too short rather than too long. The longer an abstract is the less it tends to function as an abstract, and the more it performs the task you have set rather than enticing us into your work.
Q: My paper is complex. How can I comply with your requirements?
First, do not fill your abstract with facts. Facts (including legal facts) should be no more than a third of your abstract, and just sufficient to indicate what the paper is about. Second, your abstract is not your paper. Do not use a paragraph of your paper as your abstract: ‘abstract’ means a dragging out, not a repetition. Pose your question or your thesis at the very beginning, e.g. ‘My argument in this paper is that …’, or ‘The case study I present here is a story of how …’; do not wait to the end to do this. A paper is not a detective novel where you only find out on the last page ‘who done it’!
Q: But how will a reader/ reviewer/ editor know that I know what I am talking about?
You will be assumed to know what you are talking about unless you show otherwise by being unclear, confusing, long-winded, repetitive, or obvious. Be punchy, positive, and persuasive. Do not be overly modest. Do not make any language/ presentational mistakes as the reader will assume the paper will be even worse than the abstract.
Q: Do I need to refer to literature?
No, not in the abstract. But you need to show that you are aware of your place on the intellectual map, e.g., ‘whereas most of the literature assumes that … I seek to show that, on the contrary, …’
Q: Do I need to indicate my methodology?
Not necessarily, unless the methodology itself is key to your thesis, e.g., ‘A survey of case law shows that …’, or ‘interviews with hedge fund managers indicate that …’
Q: How do the decision-makers decide?
They will be looking originality in the choice of topic, in the argument presented, or the contribution the paper makes to the sum of human knowledge and ideas, however small that might be. They will also look for a good fit with the purpose of submitting the abstract, e.g. for a journal special issue or a conference on a particular topic. They may also be looking for a representational range of topics, countries, scholars or points of view. You may not fit what they are looking for, but at least be a good example of what they might be looking for.
Q: Can you give me an example?
Sure. Here is one of my own I prepared earlier. It is not perfect but it does the job in just 140 words.
The study of monarchy might seem an unpromising way of understanding modern society. While this is true in Europe with its functional ‘cycling’ monarchs, it is not true in Asia where in Thailand and Cambodia for example the King still plays a very large role in public affairs both symbolically and politically. This paper looks at Malaysia which has no less than nine functioning monarchies (or 10 if one includes its unique, rotating, federal monarch), and argues that since the millennium there has been an ambitious attempt to recreate the image of monarchy tarnished in the 1980s and 1990s. As against a monarchy under threat during those times, the new ‘Nazrinian’ monarchy (named so after the Sultan of Perak, a prime mover in this project) seeks to establish a new and expanded, albeit controversial role, for this ancient institution.