How (and When) to Write an Abstract:

An abstract is essentially a very condensed summary of your entire paper. You should not write this until after you have finished writing your paper. The abstract is therefore not due before the final paper.

The total number of words for the abstract absolutely must not exceed the maximum of 250 words under any circumstances (this is a strict limit, it cannot be 251 words for example). If your abstract is too long, it means that you need to keep revising and editing, until it is not. The same applies for the research paper as a whole. However, the the word count for the abstract will not count towards your word limit for the final paper (nor do References). Again, only begin writing your abstract after you have finished your research paper.

On your final paper, have your TITLE, NAME, and ABSTRACT, in that order, and then begin your research paper without any heading such as “Introduction” (it’s understood that the start of the paper is always the introduction). Above the abstract itself, insert this as a heading: Abstract. Make sure that there is a space between the abstract and the start of your paper, or it could be confused with an introduction.

An abstract should contain the following items (see the examples below):

1) The objective of your research project (what you set out to explore and/or argue)
2) Some of your most important findings–or, some of the most important aspects of your argument
3) The main conclusions that result from your work and why you argue they are important.

Use short, direct sentences.

An abstract does not contain any definitions, nor does it provide an overview of the data that went into your paper (unless there is one particular datum that itself arrests attention in a way that it spotlights the significance of your research).

Finally, an abstract must reflect your paper:

  • It should not try to reflect the broader subject that you are investigating;
  • it should not add anything that cannot be found in the paper itself; and,
  • it cannot be so general that it effectively casts your paper as a mystery.

For the purposes of the abstract, do not refer to yourself in the first person (“I”, “me”, “my,” “mine”).

HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH ABSTRACTS, provided by the University of Wisconsin-Madison–look in particular at the humanities and social sciences abstracts: