Wednesday, January 23, 2013

WAC Spotlight: Writing an Abstract for the Natural Sciences

Last week a student came into the Writing Center seeking advice on an abstract.  My ears instantly perked up because I have now written many abstracts and thought I might be able to unload some expertise on a willing student.

Plus, due to the quiet nature of the beginning of a semester, it has been rather slow in the Writing Center.  I'm pretty sure I might have injured some of my fellow Writing Consultants in my mad dash to snag the session (sorry about that, Greg).

However, when the student showed me the abstract she had written, I quickly found myself in a state of dismay. Although the format was similar to what I was used to, the context was quite different.

Generally in the Humanities abstracts are written for these reasons: to submit a paper for a conference or to preface an article in a journal.  Abstracts are generally 250-500 words in length and contain a lot of phrases like:
  • This paper will explore the notion of identity construction in Lois Lowry's The Giver...
  • According to Johnny Come Lately, "Dystopia is becoming a popular genre..."
  • Although eating peaches may be desirous to some, it seems as if others are greatly dismayed by the slimy texture.
Abstracts in the Humanities often fall on the side of presumptions rather than definite outcomes, and can also include secondary source information in order to help support an argument the writer is making.  An abstract written for the humanities is usually very descriptive and also engaging, because it is what will get a paper selected for a conference or a journal.

A sciences - specifically Natural Sciences - abstract is very different, and all of a sudden I found my once cocky self full of woe and trepidation, worried that I would fail in assisting my student.

In the sciences an abstract is thought of as an extremely concise summary of a paper or project.  This abstract does not presume to know about a subject but indeed does know - it never says anything like, "This paper will explore the idea of...", it instead says, "The theory of relativity is proven in this paper."  

Actually, the abstract is the MOST important part of a scientific paper, and is usually written AFTER the paper/research has been compiled (in the English department an abstract is often written first, before the paper is written).

Here are some tips you should think of while writing an abstract for the Natural Sciences:
  • Never say "will be discussed...".
  • Refrain from using secondary sources and do not quote.
  • Your exact findings need to be included in this abstract (I know it feels as if you are giving away the good stuff early, but this is how it has to be).
  • Do not waffle.  Be concise and direct.
  • Word length is often dictated by the nature of a study, but 100-250 words is a common word length for scientific abstracts.
  • Start your Abstract out by telling your audience EXACTLY what you did and how you did it.
  • A great example sentence for an abstract goes something like this: "This study determined the impacts on migratory bird patterns by tagging and then mapping a selected group of Canadian Geese,and then Stella simulation software was used to model migratory dynamics."
Although an abstract written for the sciences is written after the paper has been penned, a helpful thing to do while writing the paper is to keep a running list of notes from each section you are writing.  Then when it's time to write the abstract, you have the key points from each section and can form a concise abstract more easily.

Similar to the introduction of a paper, an abstract is what hooks your reader. So, be exciting! Make that audience want to read your work!  Like if they don't read your paper, they might suffer loss of limb or something.

Don't use exclamation points though...that's just me being excited.  The sciences generally tends to shun the exuberant exclamation point (sigh).

And finally, one extremely interesting difference is that the last lines (or the conclusion) of your abstract should be able to flow into the opening of your paper - almost like a preface, but make sure you use different words than what you have written in your "real" introduction.

Want to know more about writing abstracts in the sciences?  Check out these links:

And of course, the Purdue Owl has an entire presentation on writing Scientific Abstracts that is incredibly helpful and can be found here.

Now I find myself waiting on pins and needles to assist a student writing a science abstract, and since I generally cringe at the mention of science, I'm not quite sure how I feel about this.

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