[This post continues my “self-help” series on writing for PhD students; the first post is here]
The first thing that you should write when starting a new paper is its abstract. I also recommend spending a lot of time on it. This will pay off later.
Writing the abstract first may seem unconventional, but it makes sense. This is because the abstract is the storyline of the paper in miniature form. It determines the rest. Once you have composed your abstract, you have decided on your story, and the paper is much easier to write.
So what’s a great abstract like? One common mistake is to view the abstract as an information container, whose only aim is to let the reader know what the author has done. An abstract written in this way reads like “we did X and the result was Y. Then we did Z and …” It becomes a boring list of results. Two important things are missing: context and excitement!
Think of a Hollywood movie. It begins with the setup phase, where the setting and the characters are introduced. You can only follow the story if you understand the setting and know the characters (context), and you will only care about the story if you care about the characters (excitement). The same applies to any research paper and its abstract: the reader must understand the context and care enough about the problem to read on and to find out how the problem was solved.
After the setup, a typical film script continues to the confrontation phase. There is trouble; there an issue that the characters have to solve. The resolution of the confrontation marks the high point of excitement in the story. After outworking the story, some brief epilogue may follow, providing closure.
Great papers and their abstracts follow a similar arc: from setup to confrontation and from resolution to closure. The storyline can be seen as hourglass-shaped: presenting the broad setting, introducing a more narrow problem and its solution, and returning to the broader picture again. It is not a coincidence that this is exactly how every Nature abstract reads.
The script that every Nature abstract has to follow, sentence by sentence, begins with a few sentences on general context and the broader topic. Then, the abstract narrows down to more specific context (again a few sentences), before funnelling to its narrowest point: the exact research question addressed by the paper. This has to be followed by the solution of the problem: the key result. Then the abstract broadens again, first addressing the implications of the result to the paper’s field of science, and then discussing the impact beyond that particular field. Setup, confrontation, resolution, closure.
Even if you are not writing a Nature paper (and you probably aren’t), the above is still a great recipe for a successful abstract, and my suggestion is to always follow its spirit.
Of course, depending on your field and the chosen journal, the breadth of the top and the bottom of the hourglass may need to be adjusted. Instead of a context where your result contributes to solving mankind’s most pressing problems, your playing field may be just your particular field of science, or its subfield. For a specialist journal, you don’t need to begin your abstract with a sentence on the importance of your field – the readers already know it. Nevertheless, it pays off to consider the broadest context you can honestly think of. Don’t exaggerate, but try to take a broader perspective. Why is your research question important –– why does it matter? The answer to this question is your context; it should directly translate to the first and last sentences of your abstract.