How To Write An Abstract

Writing an abstract
An abstract should be brief, yet comprehensive.. Hill Street Studios / Blend Images / Getty Images

The abstract is the second page of a lab report or APA-format paper and should immediately follow the title page. Think of an abstract as a condensed summary of your entire paper.

The purpose of your abstract is to provide a brief yet thorough overview of your paper. The APA publication manual suggests that your abstract should function much like your title page – it should allow the person reading it to quickly determine what your paper is all about.

The APA manual also states that the abstract is the single most important paragraph in your entire paper. It is the first thing that most people will read and it is usually what informs their decision to read the rest of your paper. A good abstract lets the reader know that your paper is worth reading.

According to the official guidelines of the American Psychological Association, a good abstract should be:

  • Brief but packed with information. Each sentence must be written with maximum impact in mind. To keep your abstract short, focus on including just four or five of the essential points, concepts, or findings.
  • Objective and accurate. The abstract's purpose is to report rather than provide commentary. It should also accurately reflect what your paper is about. Only include information that is also included in the body of your paper.

How to Write an Abstract

  1. First, write your paper. While the abstract will be at the beginning of your paper, it should be the last section that you write. Once you have completed the final draft of your psychology paper, use it as a guide for writing your abstract.
  1. Begin your abstract on a new page and place your running head and the page number 2 in the top right-hand corner. You should also center the word Abstract at the top of the page.
  2. Keep it short. According to the APA style manual, an abstract should be between 150 to 250 words. Exact word counts can vary from journal to journal. If you are writing your paper for a psychology course, your professor may have specific word requirements so be sure to ask. The abstract should also be written as only one paragraph with no indentation. In order to succinctly describe your entire paper, you will need to determine which elements are the most important.
  1. Structure the abstract in the same order as your paper. Begin with a brief summary of the Introduction, and then continue on with a summary of the Method, Results and Discussion sections of your paper.
  2. Look at other abstracts in professional journals for examples of how to summarize your paper. Notice the main points that the authors chose to mention in the abstract. Use these examples as a guide when choosing the main ideas in your own paper.
  3. Write a rough draft of your abstract. While you should aim for brevity, be careful not to make your summary too short. Try to write one to two sentences summarizing each section of your paper. Once you have a rough draft, you can edit for length and clarity.
  4. Ask a friend to read over the abstract. Sometimes having someone look at your abstract with fresh eyes can provide perspective and help you spot possible typos and other errors.

Consider the Type of Paper You Are Writing

The format of your abstract also depends on the type of paper you are writing.

For example, an abstract summarizing an experimental paper will differ from that of a meta-analysis or case study.

For an abstract of an experimental report:

  • Begin by identifying the problem
  • Describe the participants in the study
  • Briefly describe the study method used
  • Give the basic findings
  • Provide any conclusions or implications of the study

For an abstract of a meta-analysis or literature review:

  • Describe the problem of interest
  • Explain the criteria that were used to select the studies included in the paper
  • Identify the participants of the studies
  • Provide the main results
  • Describe any conclusions or implications

How Long Should Your Abstract Be?

Question from a Reader:
"I remember being taught than an abstract should be no more than 120 words, but now that I'm back in school I'm seeing that many websites state that it should be between 150 and 250 words. Just needed some clarification. I heard that the newest APA book was full of major errors and I don't know when or if that has been fixed."

The sixth-edition APA manual suggests that an abstract be between 150 and 250 words. However, they note that the exact requirements vary from one journal to the next. If you are writing the abstract for a class, you might want to check with your instructor to see if he or she has a specific word count in mind.

Psychology papers such as lab reports and APA format articles often require an abstract. Think of an abstract as a one-paragraph summary of your paper. The abstract should include all of the major elements of your paper, including an introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and discussion. Although the abstract should be placed at the beginning of your paper (right after the title page), you will write the abstract last after you have completed a final draft of your paper.

Also, the first printing of the new publication manual did contain some errors, but these problems have since been corrected. A number of online retailers currently offer the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.

A Few More Helpful Tips:

  1. Look in academic psychology journals for examples of abstracts.
  2. Keep on hand a copy of a style guide published by the American Psychological Association for reference.
  3. If possible, take your paper to your school's writing lab for assistance.

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