Let’s be honest: You don’t want to write an abstract. Like everyone else (including this author), you’ve put it off until the submission deadline for the conference was almost upon you or until you knew you had to submit your paper or your coauthors might threaten you with violence.
However, since you need to write an abstract, you want to do it well. Here are some tips.
Start with the Guidelines
What are the requirements for this abstract in terms of its length, formatting, and inclusion of figures? Do you need to be a member of a society, pay dues or submission fees, or have created a log-in to a specific platform before you can submit?
For example, if you’re planning to attend an AGU meeting, you can start by looking up the information on all aspects of submission and registration, such as those for Fall Meeting and the joint Ocean Sciences Meeting. If you’re preparing a paper, you can check out submission procedures for the AGU journals.
Learn from Your Peers
Take a look at archives of past abstracts for the conference or journal to which you’re submitting to get a better sense of how others have framed their work (e.g., try browsing the Ocean Sciences Meeting 2018 abstracts). This is also a great way to identify the best keywords to include with your abstract to ensure meeting attendees or researchers can easily find your work.
Begin with the Basics (Try Simple Sentences)
Sometimes we find writing difficult because of the pressure to be polished right from the start. In the stressful days when I was “working on” my dissertation (my apartment was never so thoroughly cleaned), my adviser suggested that I start with simple sentences: don’t write formally, yet—just explain the very basics of the background on the issue, the question you’re asking, what you found, and why it matters. Which leads me to…
Try a Plain Language Summary First
Plain language summaries, or plain language abstracts, are becoming a more common option to submit in addition to your scientific abstract. (All AGU conferences and journals encourage, and some require, plain language accompaniments.) These jargon-light, accessible synopses are an excellent opportunity to get your paper noticed by scientists outside your field, journalists, and even members of the science-interested public. And writing your plain language summary first is a good way to make sure it flows; trying to work backward and translate a jargon-heavy, field-specific abstract into something a nonscientist can follow is usually much harder. Take a look at our recommendations for how to write a plain language summary, and give it a try.
Remember all the important elements: Have you made sure to provide sufficient context and background by explaining why your science questions arise naturally from what we already know about the field? Have you briefly described how you conducted your experiment and what you found? (For conferences, the findings may not be quite as specific—that’s understood.) Have you explained why your study matters and what societal implications it might have?
Scientific Abstract: I’ve Tricked You into Thinking There Was an Involved Second Step
Once you’ve written a plain language summary, you’re almost done. For your scientific abstract, you can put the jargon back in and add any details about methods or results that were too technical or field specific to include before.
Before you know it, you’re finished, until the next abstract you need to put off writing.
—Olivia V. Ambrogio (@squidfan), Sharing Science Program Manager, AGU