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Writing a good abstract

A prospective reader of your work will start with the abstract (or executive summary). If that cannot grab and hold their attention, and make them think you have really good stuff to say, they will not read any further

Here's an excellent abstract from the research paper [FCS14]:

The natural-language approach to identifying biological analogies exploits the existing format of much biological knowledge, beyond databases created for biomimetic design. However, designers may need to select analogies from search results, during which biases may exist toward: specific words in descriptions of biological phenomena, familiar organisms and scales, and strategies that match preconceived solutions. Therefore, we conducted two experiments to study the effect of abstraction on overcoming these biases and selecting biological phenomena based on analogical similarities. Abstraction in our experiments involved replacing biological nouns with hypernyms. The first experiment asked novice designers to choose between a phenomenon suggesting a highly useful strategy for solving a given problem, and another suggesting a less-useful strategy, but featuring bias elements. The second experiment asked novice designers to evaluate the relevance of two biological phenomena that suggest similarly useful strategies to solve a given problem. Neither experiment demonstrated the anticipated benefits of abstraction. Instead, our abstraction led to: (1) participants associating nonabstracted words to design problems and (2) increased difficulty in understanding descriptions of biological phenomena. We recommend investigating other ways to implement abstraction when developing similar tools or techniques that aim to support biomimetic design.

This is an excellent abstract because it provides the reader with everything they need to know to decide if they ought to read the rest of the paper. Specifically:

  • The first sentence establishes the scope and area of interest of the reported work.
  • Sentence 2 clearly identifies a specific problem within that area.
  • Sentences 3 and 4 describe the work in terms of it being an attempt to address the problem.
  • Sentences 5 and 6 describe the actual work done (two experiments).
  • Sentences 7 and 8 describe the results of the experiments.
  • The last sentence summarizes the “conclusions” (in this case, in the form of recommendations for future research) of the paper.

This is exactly the way you should structure all your abstracts and executive summaries.


FCS14. a T. Feng, H. Cheong, and L.H. Shu. 2014. Effects of abstraction on selecting relevant biological phenomena for biomimetic design. ASME J Mech Des 136(11).
teaching/writing_a_good_abstract.txt · Last modified: 2020.03.12 13:30 (external edit)