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Advice on Writing Abstracts

When you make a proposal for a conference, you have to master the trick of describing your paper or project as if it's completed, even though it may exist only in your imagination or in the form of a rough outline. Nevertheless, writing abstracts is a valuable skill to master for all Honors students, for wherever you end up after college, you will be asked to describe ideas and projects (and why they make sense) for specific audiences to secure funding, get promoted, or win contracts. Here are a few tips on doing a good job.

1) Model your abstract on examples from the discipline. Find examples of abstracts from your particular discipline and model your writing on that example. You are trying to appeal to a specific audience that expects a certain format and vocabulary. It would also be a good idea to have a professor in your particular field of study review a draft of your abstract. For Honors conferences and other interdisciplinary meetings, avoid too much jargon and remember that you are writing for (and will eventually be speaking to) a non-specialist but learned audience. Click on the links below for examples of journal abstracts in

Science (PDF File)

Literature (PDF File)

Psychology (PDF File)

2) Contextualize your work within some specific context. Show how your work relates to other work in the field. Academic work functions on one level as a continuing conversation in which writers and thinkers are always measuring their ideas against those of each other. You can use a quotation from a prominent person in the discipline to show where your work fits into this larger conversation. If you take issue with the work of another writer, show specifically how your project departs from that work. You can also provide historical, cultural, or theoretical contexts that might shed light on your approach.

3) Balance specifics and larger issues. Try to work back and forth between the specifics of your project and some of the larger implications for your work. In other words, at some point you need to at least try to demonstrate what is important or significant about your work.

4) Pay attention to the writing. All the writing instruction that you have received over the years really matters here. Write concisely (you usually only have 100-250 words to get your point across). Use strong verbs that assert your point vigorously (except in disciplines where it is more appropriate to employ passive voice). Be direct and avoid verbosity (instead of writing, “I hope to show through my study that the acidity levels in the stream might have risen,” write “This study demonstrates causes and effects of increases in acidity rates”). Be as specific as possible (avoid generalities). And revise, revise, revise.

5) Don’t procrastinate. The best abstracts seem like effortless accounts of thrilling projects delivered with the greatest of ease. As the writer George Plimpton once famously remarked about giving public speeches: “the more you sweat in preparation, the less you’ll sweat in delivery.” The strongest abstracts come about as the result of an enormous amount of thought and work up front, which gives the writer authority to talk about his or her project confidently, specifically, and concisely. Procrastinators can’t write good abstracts because the idea must take time to germinate, background reading must be done, and the project must be outlined over time.

6) Ask for help. Students sometimes have a hard time asking for help (because they see it as a sign of weakness), but all academics have colleagues in their field read their writing—it’s an outgrowth of the mentoring system that your professors took part in when they attended graduate school. Conference proposals offer honors students a good way to start engaging in that process. And it will help your abstract