A Great Paper Abstract in 5 Sentences

Your abstract is the trailer to the movie that is your paper.

The abstract. The hurried after-thought to the paper you just finished writing.

You dash off a few rambling words, just minutes before you hit “Submit” to ship your paper off for review to a conference or a journal.

Here’s the rub. Your after-thought is the reader’s first impression.

Your abstract is the trailer to the movie that is your paper.

A great movie trailer makes you want to go see the movie.
A great abstract makes you makes you want to read the paper.

Do’s and Don’ts

A movie trailer is the elevator pitch for the movie.

People willingly invest 2 hours of their time to see a movie, simply after watching a 2-minute trailer. A movie trailer is not there to make you think. It’s there to make you want to watch.

Your abstract is the elevator pitch for your paper.

Image by Michelle Raponi from Pixabay.

The abstract of your paper is not there to make the reader think. The abstract is there to get the reader to invest hours of their time in wanting to know more, simply after reading one short paragraph.

  • Be succinct. Your abstract should be a sneak preview, not the entire first two scenes of the movie. A two-paragraph abstract is one paragraph too long.
  • Articulate novelty. Movie-goers want to feel that they are watching something new. As much as people may like a genre of movies, people savor the excitement of a new plot, a new setting, a new story, even if the characters stay the same. The abstract needs to make the reader feel that this work is novel and like no other paper (of yours or anyone else’s).
  • Avoid jargon. A movie trailer’s job is to fill theaters. This is why movie trailers steer clear of jargon and unfamiliar words, and only highlight the cliffhangers. Your abstract should generate excitement in a broad audience, not try to please a narrow one. Don’t stuff your abstract with acronyms or wordy scientific phrases that only three people (you, your advisor, and your best friend) on the planet know.
  • Use good pace. The best movie trailers whet the appetite with the right pace and imagery, and move rapidly from one thrilling scene to another, leaving enough suspense in the viewer’s mind. Structure your abstract as a series of crisp sentences that spill into each other with (good) dramatic effect, without giving away any secrets.
  • Identify genre. A good movie trailer knows its audience, and informs the movie-goer what type of movie (action, horror, mystery, etc.) to expect. A good abstract tells the reader what kind of paper (empirical-studies, theory, practical experiences, system-building, etc.) to expect.

Five simple sentences

Five sentences. That’s all it takes in my field (computer science).

Ask yourself the right questions, and the 5 sentences that emerge become your abstract. That’s it.

  1. What is the problem? (1 sentence) Describe the problem you’re solving in the paper. Be precise about what you’re solving.
  2. Why is the problem a problem? (1 sentence) Explain why the problem matters. Explain why it’s worth solving. Explain why this problem has plagued your field and why this problem is so worthy of your effort and the reader’s attention.
  3. How did you solve the problem? (1 sentence) Explain how you’re solving the problem, what’s so novel or ground-breaking about your way of setting about it. This is the sentence that should make the reader sit up and take notice. This sentence builds suspense and expectation for the rest of the paper.
  4. Got proof? (1 sentence) Explain how you’re sure you’ve solved the problem. How did you set about collecting the evidence that you’ve got a great solution?
  5. Big deal, you’ve solved the problem. So what? (1 sentence) Now that you’ve solved the problem your way, how is the world better for it? How has this advanced your field? How does your work change what is possible in your field, now that you’ve come along and written this awesome paper?

So, who’s the abstract for?

  • The gatekeeper. This is the program chair of the conference, who decides who the reviewer of your paper should be. This may be the person who reviews your paper to decide whether or not it makes the cut to be published. These folks read dozens of papers and write dozens of reviews within a short period of time. You want them to remember your paper when the time comes for them to write up their reviews. Your abstract should help jog their memory.
  • The citer. This is the graduate student who’s searching online for related work or is interested in your field. This person will skim through your abstract to decide whether or not to read/cite your paper, and whether your paper should form a part of their literature review. These are your amplifiers. If they like your paper, they will tell their friends. Your abstract should get them to spread the word.
  • The explorer. This might be the person who flips through a scientific journal and is trying to decide what to read. This is someone who does not know what genre of movie they like, but is looking to be surprised, to be engaged, and to be drawn in. Your abstract should make them feel like they are uncovering a hidden gem.

A great abstract — just like a great movie trailer— builds suspense and expectations. It promises without giving it away.

By all means, write your abstract last, but write it well.

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