How to write an impactful (not too abstract) abstract

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An abstract is one of the most important components of an academic manuscript. You will often find them at the beginning of theses and dissertations, as well as journal articles and working papers. Sometimes they go by a different name, like an executive summary for a policy paper or technical report. The information contained in the abstract is in many cases what allows someone to decide whether they are going to continue reading the rest of the paper or not. Yet many students treat it as an afterthought; quickly drafting one before making their final submission for examination.

While you do not need to spend hours on this short summary of your work, it has to contain relevant information to allow your reader to get a good idea of what the manuscript is about. It thus has to be concise and to the point, usually between 150 to 300 words.

Theuns Kotzé, from the University of Pretoria, has provided a formula which can be used when writing an abstract. Although his article relates to writing quantitative academic articles, this formula is easily replicated for those which have a qualitative focus. He also provides ‘formulas’ that you can use for writing other parts of your article, like the introduction, conclusion, or discussion section. In this post I will go through the specific instructions he provides for abstracts.

The 7 elements of an abstract

In his article, he describes an abstract as a “window display” or an “advertisement” of your work, so it has to impress the reader. Consequently, he provides guidelines, in the form of 7 elements, which he recommends must be included in an abstract. These include:

  1. A brief theme sentence to orientate the reader to the overall issue being addressed
  2. The main purpose of the study
  3. The academic and/or practical importance of the study
  4. A brief description of the methodology
  5. A brief summary of the main findings
  6. A statement about the contribution made by the study in filing gaps in the literature
  7. The practical or managerial implications of the study’s findings (if appropriate)

Examples of abstracts

He then goes onto provide a few examples of abstracts to demonstrate how each element can be incorporated

[Element 1] Advertisements have become more risqué as companies vie for consumer attention in an over-saturated market. One such risqué approach is the use of “lesbian appeals”; appeals in which two female models are depicted interacting in a seemingly romantic or erotic manner. [Element 2] This study investigates the influence of lesbian appeals on consumer attitudes towards the advertisement and the brand, as well as on consumers’ intention to purchase the product. [Element 3] The results should assist marketers to ascertain whether lesbian appeals are effective or whether such appeals offend consumers. [Element 4] A survey of hetero-, homo- and bisexual respondents (aged 18 to 30) [Element 5] found that there is a significant correlation between tolerance of homosexuality and acceptance of lesbian content in print advertisements. In addition, advertisements containing lesbian appeals attracted attention and interest and were not perceived as particularly immoral, exploitive or offensive. Advertisements containing clear lesbian interactions are more effective in attracting attention and being memorable than those with lower levels of homoerotic tension, but may lead to lower brand quality perceptions. The findings further indicate that homosexual consumers are not significantly more open to this type of advertising. [Element 6] Lesbian appeals may be an appropriate, though controversial strategy to get the attention of so-called “twenty-something” consumers. [Element 7] Marketers should, however, carefully evaluate the nature of the target market, the degree of homoerotic tension to be depicted and and the nature of the product when considering lesbian appeals in advertisements.

Using one of my own abstracts:

[Element 1 & 3] In the Botswana Labour Force Survey, agriculture was identified as the fastest growing employing industry with growth mainly driven by the entrance of women into the industry. As such, the purpose of the study [Element 2] was thus to investigate how the demographic profile of farm holders have changed in Botswana over time. [Element 4] Using Agricultural Survey Reports, the paper descriptively analyses changes in the gender and age composition of farm holders in Botswana. The study found that [Element 5] the industry has in fact employed a larger share of women, but that the movement of women into the industry was still largely dependent on those of men. This is evident in the fact that the share of married male and female farmers move in opposite directions. It also found that during times of distress women’s share as farmers increased. [Element 6] The movement of men and women in the industry indicates that policies which have historically been geared towards the needs and characteristics of male farmers and their households may require gender mainstreaming to accommodate female farmers and their households. This paper opens up a debate [Element 7] around gendered social assistance which accommodates women not just as ordinary household members, but more specifically farmers.

Another example by Nicole De Wet:

[Element 1] Youth unemployment continues to be a burden and concern for the South African government. [Element 3] Being economically insecure, the situation is dire with the government needing to provide resources to a population who should be economically independent. There is a need to look at the social determinants of economic insecurity among youth in South Africa. Family formations could either promote or inhibit economic well-being. This article aims to [Element 2] assess whether economic security improves as youth enter into unions and/or have children. The South African National Income Dynamics Study is used [Element 4]. Unmarried youth with no children are measured at baseline (2008) and followed up over time to examine whether economic security status changes as union status changes. Results show [Element 5] that while economic security, employment (from 7.61% to 25.67%) and net income per month (from 19.48% to 32.79%) increase over time, youth who marry but have no children have the lowest risk of economic insecurity (relative risk ratio = 0.02, p < 0.05) compared with those who remain unmarried but have children. [Element 6] Special attention needs to be given to youth who have children and are unmarried and among those who marry and have children soon after.

Does your abstract have all the relevant components?

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