How to Write an Abstract

Philip Koopman, Carnegie Mellon University
October, 1997

Abstract

Because on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it is vital to write a complete but concise description of your work to entice potential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper. This article describes how to write a good computer architecture abstract for both conference and journal papers. Writers should follow a checklist consisting of: motivation, problem statement, approach, results, and conclusions. Following this checklist should increase the chance of people taking the time to obtain and read your complete paper.

Introduction

Now that the use of on-line publication databases is prevalent, writing a really good abstract has become even more important than it was a decade ago. Abstracts have always served the function of "selling" your work. But now, instead of merely convincing the reader to keep reading the rest of the attached paper, an abstract must convince the reader to leave the comfort of an office and go hunt down a copy of the article from a library (or worse, obtain one after a long wait through inter-library loan). In a business context, an "executive summary" is often the only piece of a report read by the people who matter; and it should be similar in content if not tone to a journal paper abstract.

Checklist: Parts of an Abstract

Despite the fact that an abstract is quite brief, it must do almost as much work as the multi-page paper that follows it. In a computer architecture paper, this means that it should in most cases include the following sections. Each section is typically a single sentence, although there is room for creativity. In particular, the parts may be merged or spread among a set of sentences. Use the following as a checklist for your next abstract:

Other Considerations

An abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of the paper. It can't assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader into flipping through looking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It must make sense all by itself. Some points to consider include:

Conclusion

Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications. Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next one you write.

Further Reading

Michaelson, Herbert, How to Write & Publish Engineering Papers and Reports, Oryx Press, 1990. Chapter 6 discusses abstracts.

Cremmins, Edward, The Art of Abstracting 2nd Edition, Info Resources Press, April 1996. This is an entire book about abstracting, written primarily for professional abstractors.


© Copyright 1997, Philip Koopman, Carnegie Mellon University.
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