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November 14, 2011

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie (and Abstracts)

by Anne Breitenbach

AnneBreitenbachComing back at long last to my promised series on abstracts, let’s begin with the first clause of the Publication Manual description in section 2.04: “An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of the article.” Our focus in this post is the “brief” part of that instruction. Your job as abstract writer is to give the prospective reader the essential information as succinctly as possible. Although you’re not quite reduced to haiku, you are restricted to what's crucial. 

In Chapter 2, which covers manuscript structure and content, section 2.04 gives us a number of specifics.  It notes that if you are preparing a paper for a specific journal, then that journal may well provide information on the abstract somewhere in the instructions to authors. Read that information. Abide by it. The most common instruction is likely to be about length. For APA journals, for instance, the instructions read, “All manuscripts must include an abstract containing a maximum of 250 words.”  If yours exceeds a limit, it may be cut arbitrarily wherever the limit falls, or it may be hacked apart by a copyeditor who has firm instructions on what to take out and what to leave in, which may well not agree with your opinion. Likewise, if you are creating an abstract for an instructor or in accordance with university guidelines, you should check and see whether they have guidelines you need to abide by.  

But back to section 2.04, here are some “don’ts”:

  • Do not include [oops. I’m afraid I just hit 250 words in these two paragraphs and so am out of space. Yes, that’s what 250 words look like. Not very long is it?] information that doesn’t appear in the manuscript. 
  • Do not evaluate in the abstract—instead, report [“I did” not “I believe”].
  • Do not get bogged down with nouns when there’s a sturdy verb available [“used” not “the utilization of”].
  • Do not use passive voice when active makes sense [“Bill ate five sandwiches” not “Five sandwiches were eaten by Bill”].
  • Do not repeat the title; in fact, don’t repeat—space is too precious.


The Manual also gives suggestions on other ways to save space. 

  • Instruction on abbreviations is a bit oblique. Section 4.22 states, “In all circumstances other than in the reference list and in the abstract [italic added], you must decide whether (a) to spell it out a given expression every time it is used in an article or (b) to spell it out initially and abbreviate it thereafter.”  So presumably abbreviations should be used in abstracts as a matter of course. 
  • Section 4.31(b) tells you to set numbers in the abstract as numerals.


Changes That Your Professor May Not Know About

Previous editions of the Publication Manual gave more extensive instructions on specifically how to keep the abstract brief.  This has led to a bit of a Catch-22, as in the sixth edition, in an effort to actually be brief, we removed some of those guidelines. We thus now have a gray area where the ghosts of old rules, still remembered by many a professor and editor, haunt the newer, less circumscribed instructions on keeping abstracts short and clear.

Here are some examples of ways in which guidelines about abstracts in the sixth edition differ from those given in the fifth edition:

  • In previous editions, writers were instructed to include initials with the surnames of authors cited in the abstract. That instruction is now gone.
  • Previously, the Manual included instructions stipulating use of the third person rather than first in the abstract (the opposite of the usual preference; see section 3.09). That specific instruction is gone, but the example given in the paragraph on being coherent and readable is written in the third person. Thus, presumably third person is still acceptable in the abstract but is not required.
  • The whole instruction-rich section on being “self-contained” is gone. That section had included advice on defining abbreviations and unique terms and spelling out names of tests. Although those suggestions are still useful ways of saving space in an abstract, they are no longer specified in the Manual.

So be brief, be clear, and be prepared. 

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