Writing 101 – Abstracts & Executive Summaries

If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it.

Albert Einstien

An abstract (academic) or executive summary (business) appears at the beginning of documents to serve as a concise summary of your work. It is arguably the most critical piece of any writing because it signals to users whether they should read your entire document or not.

Your readers are busy people with multiple priorities; therefore, an abstract acts as your paper’s elevator pitch and chief salesperson by hooking your readers to the story, defining the boundaries of your narrative, and stating why it matters.

Basically, an abstract should answer the following what, why, how and who questions:

  1. What was done?
  2. Why was it done?
  3. How was it done?
  4. Who does it theoretically and practically impact?

An abstract is typically the last section to be written, because it concisely shares the essence of the entire document.

The following 10 tips can be applied to writing a great abstract. Your abstract should:

  • Use your document’s keywords and phrases (5 – 7) to allow your audience to grasp the most important concepts. Identifying these will also help you understand the essence of your paper.
  • Have a straightforward narrative that concisely yet richly emphasises the main points of your research instead of a copy and paste patch-kit from your original document.
  • Not present any information not included in your writing as this may set expectations for readers that will not be fulfilled.
  • Have a golden thread that ties the entire piece of writing together. Focus and stick to one story!
  • Not hide the lead or play coy; share your most relevant findings and contributions. This is a greatest hits list, not an album.
  • Have 250 – 350 words depending on the length of your document (check the specific rules for your industry)
  • Not contain any references unless it is very integral to your research
  • Have minimal jargon and abbreviations to reach a broad audience
  • Be free from any grammatical errors
  • Answer an essential question about each section or chapter.

An easy formula for abstract writing is to include 1-3 sentences from each section.

For more on writing, check out Writing 101 – The Paragraph.

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