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Writing Abstracts for Research Manuscripts

Release Date: April 29, 2012
Category: Manuscript Writing

Key Points Summary

  • Abstracts are brief versions of manuscripts and should entice readers to read further.
  • Abstracts should provide information in the Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion/Conclusions (IMRAD) order.
  • The abstract must stand on its own, apart from the rest of the manuscript.
  • Use signaling words and key words/phrases to maintain a consistent message throughout the abstract.
  • When revising the abstract, check for the same basic grammar and construction elements as when revising the main text.

The abstract is a condensed version of the manuscript, written for readers who may never read the entire article. Abstracts should entice readers to read the full text by emphasizing your most important findings. Your abstract is also one way that readers will find your article in search engine results. Keeping the abstract concise while covering the important information in an appealing way requires careful writing and revision.

Getting Started

Write the abstract last, after drafting the main text. Your abstract should present information in the order of Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion/Conclusions (IMRAD). Before you begin writing, check your target journal’s instructions for any word limits, specified subsections, and other requirements. Knowing the requirements in advance will reduce the time you might otherwise spend shortening, reorganizing, or making other changes to meet specific journal requirements.

When drafting the abstract, focus on answering the following questions in the order listed:

  1. Why is your study important and relevant to the field? What background information will the reader need to understand what you did and why you did it?
  2. What question does your research answer?
  3. What method(s) did you use to answer your research question?
  4. What are your major experimental results and overall findings?
  5. What major conclusions can be drawn from your research? How should these be applied in the field?

As you write your abstract, remember that the abstract must stand on its own, apart from the rest of the manuscript. Readers who never read further than your abstract should still have a general understanding of what you studied, how you studied it, what you found, and what conclusions you drew. Always make sure that the abstract emphasizes your purpose and your most important findings.

Take care to avoid any of the following errors when writing your abstract:

  • Including information that is not discussed in the main text.
  • Drawing conclusions that are not supported by the data you report in the main text.
  • Repeating sentences word-for-word from the main text.
  • Citing references (unless absolutely necessary), or figures and tables.

Continuity and Word Signals in the Abstract

Continuity means that your abstract follows a consistent “story” and moves smoothly from the background information through to the conclusions. To maintain a consistent message within the abstract and with the main text, use key words and phrases that appear in the title and your manuscript’s key words as you write the abstract.

Using word signals also helps maintain continuity as you move from one part of the abstract to another. Word signals are phrases that indicate what information you are discussing. For example, phrases like “To determine whether…” and “To understand how…” indicate that you are stating your research question.

Word signals for other parts of the abstract include the following:

  • Methods or experimental approach
    • To answer this question, we…
    • To test this hypothesis, we…
  • Results
    • The results showed…
    • We found that…
  • Conclusions, implications, or importance
    • These results suggest that…
    • We conclude that...

You can also visually signal parts of the abstract by starting a new sentence.


As you work to revise and strengthen your abstract, take care to check for the same basic grammar and construction elements as when revising your main text.

  • Remove any stray points or sentences that do not directly relate to the purpose, major results, and most important findings and conclusions.
  • Eliminate unnecessary or redundant phrases like “in order to” and “may have the potential to.”
  • Rewrite any sentences that are very long, do not make your point clearly, or are cluttered with too many details.
  • Make sure the abstract is written in plain English. Remove any jargon and define all abbreviations at first use.
  • Proofread for spelling and grammar errors.
  • Confirm that your abstract meets all of your target journal’s requirements.

More Resources for Writing Abstracts

  • Annesley, Thomas M. The Abstract and Elevator Talk: A Tale of Two Summaries. Clinical Chemistry. 56:4 (2010) pp. 521-524.
  • Foote, MaryAnne. Some Concrete Ideas about Abstracts. CHEST. 129 (2006) pp. 1375-1377.
  • Ketcham, Catherine M., Hardy, Robert W., Rubin, Brian, and Siegal, Gene P. What Editors Want in an Abstract. Laboratory Investigation. 90 (2010) pp. 4-5.

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