A summary is a brief synthesis of a larger work (such as a thesis or research paper). The summary concisely reports the goals and results of your research so readers know exactly what the work is about. It is advisable to write the summary at the end, when you have completed the rest of the text. There are four things you should include:
- The problem and the objectives of the research
- Your methods
- The main results or arguments
- The conclusion.
An abstract is usually between 150 and 300 words, but there is usually a strict word limit, so be sure to check the university’s requirements.
Definition and purpose of summaries
An abstract is a brief synthesis of your research paper (published or unpublished), usually one paragraph (about 6-7 sentences, 150-250 words). A well-written summary serves multiple purposes:
- The abstract allows readers to quickly grasp the essence of your work or article, to decide if they will read the entire work.
- A summary prepares readers to follow the detailed information, analyses, and arguments of your entire document.
- And, subsequently, a summary helps readers remember the key points of their thesis.
If you are writing an abstract for a thesis, your tutor can give you specific guidelines on what you should include and how to organize your abstract. Similarly, academic journals typically have specific requirements for abstracts. Therefore, in addition to following the advice on this page, you should make sure to look for and follow the guidelines of the course or journal you are writing for.
When to write a summary
You will almost always have to include an abstract when writing a thesis, a dissertation, a research paper or submitting an article to an academic journal.
In all cases, the summary is the last thing you write. It should be a completely independent and autonomous text, not a copyed excerpt from your work or dissertation. A summary should be fully understandable on its own to someone who has not read the full article or related sources.
The simplest approach to writing a summary is to mimic the structure of the larger work: think of it as a miniature version of your thesis or research paper. In most cases, this means that the summary should contain four key elements.
Start by clearly defining the objective of your research. What practical or theoretical problem does the research answer, or what research question does it intend to answer?
You can include a brief context about the social or academic relevance of your topic, but don’t go into detail.
After you identify the problem, explain the goal of your research. Use verbs like investigate, test, analyze, or evaluate to describe exactly what you set out to do.
This part of the abstract can be written in the present or in the simple past, but it should never refer to the future, since the research is already complete.
Next, indicate the research methods you have used to answer your question. This part should be a direct description of what you did in one or two sentences. It is usually written in the simple past, since it refers to actions performed.
Do not assess validity or obstacles here; the goal is not to account for the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology, but to offer the reader a quick overview of the overall approach and procedures it used.
Below, summarize the main results of the research. This part of the abstract can be in the present or in the simple past. Depending on how long and complex your research is, you may not be able to include all the results here. Try to highlight only the most important results that allow the reader to understand your conclusions.
Finally, lay out the main conclusions of your research: what is your answer to the problem or question? The reader should end with a clear understanding of the central point that their research has shown or argued. Conclusions are usually written in the present simple.
If there are major limitations in your research (e.g., related to sample size or methods), you should briefly mention them in the abstract. This allows the reader to accurately assess the credibility and generalization of your research.
If your goal was to solve a practical problem, the conclusions may include recommendations for its implementation. If relevant, you can make brief suggestions for further investigation.
If your work is to be published, you may need to add a list of keywords to the end of the abstract. These keywords should reference the most important elements of the research to help potential readers find your article during their own literature searches.
Note that some publishing manuals, such as APA standards, have specific formatting requirements for these keywords.
How to choose verb tenses in the summary
The social sciences use the present tense to describe the general facts and interpretations that have been and are currently true, including the predominant explanation of the social phenomenon studied. That summary also uses the present tense to describe the methods, results, arguments, and implications of the results of your new research study. The authors use past tense to describe previous research.
Those in the humanities use the past tense to describe events concluded in the past and use the present tense to describe what happens in those texts, to explain the importance or meaning of them and to describe the arguments presented in the article.
Science uses the past tense to describe what previous studies and the research the authors have done, the methods they have followed, and what they have found. In the substantiation or justification of their research (what remains to be done), they use the present tense. They also use the present tense to present their study.
Tips for writing a summary
It can be a real challenge to condense your entire thesis into just two hundred words, but the abstract will be the first (and sometimes the only) part that people read, so it’s important to get it right. These strategies can help you get started.
Not all summaries contain exactly the same elements. If your research has a different structure (for example, a humanities thesis that constructs an argument through thematic chapters), you can write your abstract using a reverse outline process.
For each chapter or section, list the keywords and write one or two sentences that summarize the central point or argument. This will give you a framework of the structure of your summary. Next, review the sentences to establish connections and show how the argument plays out.
The abstract should tell a condensed version of the entire story, and should only include information that can be found in the main text. Re-read your summary to make sure it offers a clear summary of your overall argument.
Read other summaries
The best way to learn the conventions for writing a summary in your discipline is to read other people’s. It is likely that you have already read many abstracts of journal articles while conducting your literature review; try to use them as a frame of reference for structure and style.
You can also find many examples of thesis abstracts in the thesis and dissertation databases.
Write clearly and concisely
A good summary is short but impactful, so make sure every word counts. Each sentence should clearly communicate a main point.
Avoid unnecessary filler words and avoid dark jargon: the summary should be understandable to readers who are not familiar with your topic.
Focus on your own research
The purpose of the abstract is to inform the original contributions of your research, so avoid talking about the work of others, even if you address it extensively in the main text.
You can include one or two sentences summarizing your academic background to situate your research and show its relevance to a broader debate, but it is not necessary to mention specific publications. Do not include citations in a summary unless absolutely necessary (for example, if your research responds directly to another study or revolves around a key theorist).
Check the format
If you are writing a thesis or dissertation, or if you submit it to a journal, there are often specific formatting requirements for the abstract; make sure you check the guidelines and format your work correctly. For APA research papers you can follow the APA abstract format.
Always respect the word limit. If you haven’t been given any guidelines on the length of the summary, don’t write more than one double-spaced page.
To establish whether the summary meets all the requirements, you can follow the following checklist:
- The number of words is within the required length, that is, a maximum of one page.
- The summary appears after the title page and acknowledgments and before the index.
- I have clearly stated my research problem and my goals.
- I have briefly described my methodology.
- It contains the most important results.
- I have set out my main conclusions.
- I have mentioned the important limitations and recommendations.
- The summary can be understood by someone with no prior knowledge of the subject.
It should also be remembered that search engines and bibliographic databases use abstracts, in addition to the title, to identify key terms to index the published article. Therefore, what you include in your abstract and in your title is crucial to help other researchers find your work or thesis.
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Borko, Harold and Seymour Chatman. “Criteria for Acceptable Abstracts: A Survey of Abstracters’ Instructions.” American Documentation 14 (April 1963): 149-160;
Procter, Margaret. The Abstract. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Riordan, Laura. “Mastering the Art of Abstracts.” The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 115 (January 2015): 41-47;
Koltay, Tibor. Abstracts and Abstracting: A Genre and Set of Skills for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford, UK: 2010; Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper. The Writing Center, University of Wisconsin, Madison.
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