Abstract Writing (Hidden Curriculum #7)

For those of you who are new here, the hidden curriculum includes a set of things we’re expected to know how to do, from attending a conference for the first time to applying for funding to going on the job market, without actually being taught them. This month I’m talking about how to write an abstract.

One thing that I actually was taught to do that would benefit me academically is writing abstracts. Moreover, I was taught, as part of a graduate seminar on Ancient Medicine in Winter 2018, how to write an abstract before writing the paper.

Up until that point, I had only ever been confident in my ability to write abstracts based on papers I’d already written, and I’m sure most people can relate. Submitting an abstract based on a paper you haven’t written yet is scary

On the one hand, this nebulous idea that’s floating around in your head has to be coherent enough to be accepted. 

On the other hand, if it does get accepted, you’ve actually got to do the work, write the paper, and present it. Woof.

As it turns out, that lesson was extremely useful as I did go on to submit the abstract to CAMWS in 2019 and it was accepted. In the end, however, I decided to withdraw from the conference when the pandemic hit and everything went online.

Since then, I have become more and more comfortable with writing abstracts based on ideas rather than full-blown research papers and happen to be in the midst of writing one now. So, I thought it would be a good time to share what I’ve learned from the process as part of the hidden curriculum series. 

Writing an abstract doesn't have to be scary

When will I have to write an abstract?

When most people think of abstracts, I’m willing to bet that they associate them with conference submissions. This is certainly one of the most common situations that call for writing abstracts. Others include:

  • Articles
  • Dissertations – This can be written or verbal (e.g. a three-minute thesis or elevator pitch)
  • Fellowship applications 
  • Job applications – These can be brief or long (e.g. a research statement) and tend to be both written and verbal

Anatomy of an abstract

Abstracts tend to be anywhere between 150-500 words. The longer they are, the more sections it will naturally be divided into. If the abstract word limit is under 300 words, it is usually okay to stick with a single paragraph.

Although certain institutions have specific guidelines for submitting abstracts, in general, all abstracts should include five things.

Purpose and motivation (Why should we care about your work?)

Problem statement (What problem are you trying to solve?)

Approach (How do you go about solving the problem? What methods, materials, datasets, or sources are you using?)

Results (What answer did you come to in concrete terms?)

Conclusions (What are the implications of your answer?)

To put these things into perspective, let’s look at a couple of examples from abstracts that I’ve submitted over the years.


#1: an abstract submitted for the 2020 annual meeting of CAMWS (659 words with title and bibliography)

#2: an abstract submitted for the 2019 graduate conference at CUNY (300 words, no bibliography)

#3: an abstract submitted as part of an application for a predoctoral fellowship (149 words)

5 more things to remember about abstract writing

Writing an abstract before writing the paper isn’t the end of the world

First of all, you’re probably wondering why the heck anyone would even want to do this. If it sounds like torture, trust me – it is. But sometimes it’s a necessary evil. I’ve done it several times and it doesn’t really get any easier. 

You’re writing an abstract – including concrete methods, results, and conclusions! – for something that is only a twinkle in your eye. 

If doing that is easy for you, I’d love to chat.

Anyway, back to the point: why would anyone put themselves through this? On the one hand, sometimes you just have an idea that you think is really great and want to share it with others. You see a call for papers and think “I know just the thing that would make a great submission for this!” 

On the other hand, it’s just good practice for the various things that academia throws at you. In particular, writing abstracts for things you haven’t written or researched yet can prepare you for talking about a still-new project in fellowship applications and as-yet-unformed second projects when you’re in job interviews. 

Being able to condense the aims and approaches of a research project into 150-500 words can also help with visualizing the big picture, and give you a solid foundation for longer research proposals.

Avoid the future tense!

To be honest, I have had many abstracts accepted where I’ve used the future tense. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with saying “This paper will…” and know that it’s inevitable to fall into using that language when you haven’t written the paper yet. 

But try to avoid or break that habit.

Not only will it save you some space (all those ‘wills’ do add up), but it will also make your arguments much more authoritative.

Remember your audience.

When in doubt, define your terms!

Sure, most of the abstracts we write are for audiences that are broadly familiar with what we do (read: ancient literature and material culture). But these people are not intimately familiar with what you do or what theories and methods you are deploying.

There will also be situations where your audience knows nothing at all about what you work on, so it’s even more important to be clear about what you’re talking about.

Don’t feel like you have to take up a ton of space with these definitions – a few words go a long way. For example, when I use Greek terms like kline, I define them briefly: “the kline, or dining couch” or, “the drinking horn (keras).”

Less is more is more.

As scholars of the ancient world, brevity is not usually our strong suit. If you find yourself going on for more than 2 sentences about one point, consider revising.

Similarly, if you run into the word limit without hitting all five things that should be included in an abstract (see above), look at what you have so far, figure out what’s missing, and decide what needs to be cut down or removed.

Check the abstract guidelines (if applicable). Then check them again.

While you can find general advice on how to write an abstract from just about anywhere, many institutions have their own submission guidelines that they want you to follow. 

For example, the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) requires that abstracts include a short bibliography. The Society for Classical Studies (SCS) includes a separate text box for bibliographic information.

Other institutions, like the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), strongly prefer submissions that include clearly stated results and conclusions. My own abstract was rejected this year for this very reason (though not for lack of trying)!

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