What Is an Abstract?
Abstracts are a good way to sum up the key contents of a paper, from the research that it uses to the ideas that you want to share with the reader. Further, if you ever publish your paper, it will help readers to find and to understand what your whole paper covers so that it is easier for those readers to do quick, quality research. A good abstract is actually quick and simple, so it should not take much time to do, and it only has three basic pieces of content.
A Need for Summaries
How much of a document do you actually read? In our fast-paced society, research suggests that it’s not much. According to a recent study, users only read approximately 20% of words on a website. People often believe this is enough information to determine whether or not to spend more time actually reading through the details of the site. Although we don’t know the average amount of a work document that is read, we can assume the amount is pretty limited. We just don’t have time!
That’s why we need summaries and abstracts. These shortened overviews of documents allow readers to decide whether or not they need to read the complete document. Summaries and abstracts allow readers to determine the results and recommendations of the document and whether or not the document is applicable to their business.
There are three main types of summaries and abstracts used in technical writing:
- Descriptive abstracts
- Informative abstracts
- Executive summaries
Descriptive abstracts provide a general overview of the report’s main purpose and content. They are very short, usually only one or two sentences, and less than 100 words. These abstracts simply introduce the document; they do not provide conclusions or recommendations. Descriptive abstracts provide very few details about the content of the document. A descriptive abstract most often appears on the title page of the document. They can also appear at the top of the first page of the document itself.
The key to writing a descriptive abstract is to focus on the main topic of the document instead of the specific details. Look at the following example: ‘Based on rigorous trials using rubber, steel, and Styrofoam, this report recommends using Styrofoam to make new rubber duckies. It also recommends changing the name to styro-ducky.’
The problem with this descriptive abstract is it’s too specific. The focus should be on the topic, not the conclusion. Instead, the abstract should say, ‘This report provides results and recommendations on the use of different materials to create rubber duck toys.’ Notice the second example does not provide details about the types of materials or the conclusions of the document. A descriptive abstract is not meant to explain results. It acts more as an introduction to the document.
For longer documents, a descriptive abstract does not provide enough information for the reader to make an informed decision about whether to examine the entire document. Therefore, most technical documents longer than ten pages will use an informative abstract.
An informative abstract is a summary of the most significant points of a document. This type of abstract is much longer than a descriptive abstract, with an average length of 10% of the length of the document. Therefore, if a document is ten pages, the abstract will be one page in length.
Stay away from including references, charts, definitions, and background information in the abstract. This information is not necessary for the audience to determine whether or not to read the document.
An informative abstract provides specific information from the body of the document, including:
- The main purpose
- Important details
- Results or conclusions
As its name suggests, an executive summary summarizes, or reviews the main points of, a longer document or report for a reader that does not have time to read the entire report. An effective executive summary analyzes and summarizes the most important points in the paper or report, and will often make a recommendation based on the analysis. Executive summaries are “stand alone” documents that are almost always read independently of the reports they summarize.
You may submit an executive summary as part of an assignment, and your instructor will likely read the summary and the paper or report. It’s helpful, however, to keep in mind that executive summaries should inform and influence people who will only be reading the executive summary. Most of the time, you will be summarizing a paper or report that you wrote, but there may be times when you will write an executive summary of another author’s report or article. Often your instructor will specify the length of your executive summary, but 10% of the document that you are summarizing is a good rule of thumb. For example, a ten-page paper or report would require a one-page executive summary.