Summarize it

by David McMurrey

An abstract is a summary of a body of information. Sometimes, abstracts are in fact called summaries—sometimes, executive summaries or executive abstracts. The business and scientific worlds define different types of abstracts according to their needs. If you are taking a technical writing course based on this online textbook, your technical report (depending on your instructor) may use two types: the descriptive abstract and the informative abstract.

See examples of abstracts as they occur within technical reports .

The descriptive abstract provides a description of the report's main topic and purpose as well an overview of its contents. As you can see from the example , it is very short—usually a brief one- or two-sentence paragraph. In this report design, it appears on the title page. You may have noticed something similar to this type of abstract at the beginning of journal articles.

In this type of abstract, you don't summarize any of the facts or conclusions of the report. The descriptive abstract does not say something like this:

Problem: Based on an exhaustive review of currently available products, this report concludes that none of the available grammar-checking software products provides any useful function to writers.

This is the style of summarizing you find in the informative abstract. Instead, the descriptive abstract says something like this:

Revision: This report provides conclusions and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently available.

The descriptive abstract is little like a program teaser. Or, to use a different analogy, it is as if the major first-level headings of the table of contents have been rewritten in paragraph format.

Descriptive abstract on report title page.

The informative abstract, as its name implies, provides information from the body of the report—specifically, the key facts and conclusions. To put it another way, this type of abstract summarizes the key information from every major section in the body of the report.

It is as if someone had taken a yellow marker and highlighted all the key points in the body of the report then vaccuumed them up into a one- or two-page document. (Of course, then some editing and rewriting would be necessary to make the abstract readable.) Specifically, the requirements for the informative abstract are as follows:

This last point is particularly important. People often confuse the kinds of writing expected in descriptive and informative abstracts. Study the difference between the informative and descriptive phrasing in the following examples:

Informative: Based on an exhaustive review of currently available products, this report concludes that none of the available grammar-checking software products provides any useful function to writers.

Descriptive: This report provides conclusions and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently available.

Informative abstract . This type summarizes the key facts and conclusions in the body of the report. (By the way, speech recognition has come a long way since this report was written in 1982!)

The executive summary is a hybrid of the descriptive and informative summaries. Written for executives whose focus is business decisions and whose background is not necessarily technical, it focuses on conclusions and recommendations but provides little background, theory, results, or other such detail. It doesn't summarize research theory or method; it makes descriptive-summary statements: for example, "theory of heat gain, loss, and storage is also discussed."

To get a sense of the executive summary, study the following example:

Executive summary.

As you reread and revise your abstracts, watch out for problems such as the following:

I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your response — David McMurrey .

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10.3 Abstract and executive summary

Most technical reports contain at least one abstract—sometimes two, in which case the abstracts play different roles. Abstracts summarize the contents of a report, but the different types do so in different ways:

  • Descriptive abstract. This type provides an overview of the purpose and contents of the report. In some report designs, the descriptive abstract is placed at the bottom of the title page, as shown in the following:

Descriptive abstract. Traditionally, it is placed on the title page (not the cover page).

  • Executive summary. Another common type is the executive summary, which also summarizes the key facts and conclusions contained in the report. Think of this as if you used a yellow highlighter to mark the key sentences in the report and then siphoned them all out onto a separate page and edited them for readability. Typically, executive summaries are one-tenth to one-twentieth the length of reports ten to fifty pages long. For longer reports, ones over fifty pages, the executive summary should not go over two pages. The point of the executive summary is to provide a summary of the report—something that can be read quickly.

If the executive summary, introduction, and transmittal letter strike you as repetitive, remember that readers don’t necessarily start at the beginning of a report and read page by page to the end. They skip around: they may scan the table of contents; they usually skim the executive summary for key facts and conclusions. They may read carefully only a section or two from the body of the report, and then skip the rest. For these reasons, reports are designed with some duplication so that readers will be sure to see the important information no matter where they dip into the report.

Chapter Attribution Information

This chapter was derived by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, from  Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0

Technical Writing Copyright © 2017 by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Technical Writing Abstract Writing.

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This handout discusses how to write good abstracts for reports. It covers informational and descriptive abstracts and gives pointers for success.

Types of abstracts

There are two types of abstracts: informational and descriptive.

Informational abstracts

  • Communicate contents of reports
  • Include purpose, methods, scope, results, conclusions, and recommendations
  • Highlight essential points
  • Are short—from a paragraph to a page or two, depending upon the length of the report (10% or less of the report)
  • Allow readers to decide whether they want to read the report

Descriptive abstracts

  • Tell what the report contains
  • Include purpose, methods, scope, but NOT results, conclusions, and recommendations
  • Are always very short— usually under 100 words
  • Introduce subject to readers, who must then read the report to learn study results

Qualities of a good abstract

An effective abstract

  • Uses one or more well-developed paragraphs, which are unified, coherent, concise, and able to stand alone
  • Uses an introduction-body-conclusion structure in which the parts of the report are discussed in order: purpose, findings, conclusions, recommendations
  • Follows strictly the chronology of the report
  • Provides logical connections between material included
  • Adds no new information but simply summarizes the report
  • Is intelligible to a wide audience

Steps for writing effective report abstracts

To write an effective report abstract, follow these four steps.

Reread your report with the purpose of abstracting in mind. Look specifically for these main parts: purpose, methods, scope, results, conclusions, and recommendations.

After you have finished rereading your report, write a rough draft without looking back at your report. Consider the main parts of the abstract listed in step #1. Do not merely copy key sentences from your report. You will put in too much or too little information. Do not summarize information in a new way.

Revise your rough draft to

Correct weaknesses in organization and coherence,

Drop superfluous information,

Add important information originally left out,

Eliminate wordiness, and

Correct errors in grammar and mechanics.

Carefully proofread your final copy.

How to Write an Abstract

Definition and Tips

  • An Introduction to Punctuation
  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

An abstract is a brief overview of the key points of an article , report , thesis, or proposal . Positioned at the head of a paper, the abstract is usually "the first thing that individuals read and, as such, decide whether to continue reading" the article or report, wrote Dan W. Butin in his book "The Education Dissertation." "It is also what is most accessed by search engines and researchers conducting their own literature reviews " (2010). The abstract is also called a synopsis or an executive summary (especially in business writing).

What a Good Abstract Contains

An abstract serves the purpose of summarizing your research or making your case for a project (or grant funding) to be awarded to you. It should encapsulate the most important information that the paper or proposal will present. In the case of obtaining grants or bids, that could include why your firm or organization is the best for the job or award. Present your company as the solution to the problem.

If you're summarizing research, you'll want to mention your methodology behind how you tackled the question or problem and your basic conclusion. It's not like writing a news lead—you don't want to tease your readers with unanswered questions to get them to read the article. You want to hit the high points so that readers will know that your in-depth research is just what they are seeking out, without reading the whole piece at that moment.

Tips on Writing an Abstract

The abstract may not be what you write first, as it might be easiest to summarize your whole paper after it's been completed. You could draft it from your outline, but you'll want to double-check later that you have included the most important points from your article and that there's nothing in the abstract that you decided not to include in your report.

The abstract is a summary and shouldn't have anything in it that's not in the paper itself. Neither is it the same as the introduction to your report, which sets out your thesis and your aims. The abstract also contains information about your conclusion.

There are two types of abstracts, descriptive or informative. "The Handbook of Technical Writing" explains it this way:

Abstract Length

An abstract is not overly long. Mikael Berndtsson and colleagues advise, "A typical [informative] abstract is about 250-500 words. This is not more than 10-20 sentences, so you will obviously have to choose your words very carefully to cover so much information in such a condensed format." (Mikael Berndtsson, et al., "Thesis Projects: A Guide for Students in Computer Science and Information Systems," 2nd ed. Springer-Verlag, 2008.)

If you can hit all the high points in fewer words—if you're just writing a descriptive abstract—don't add extra just to reach 250 words, of course. Unnecessary detail doesn't do you or your reviewers any favors. Also, the proposal requirements or the journal that you wish to be published in may have length requirements. Always follow guidelines you've received, as even minor errors can cause your paper or grant request to be rejected.

  • Jennifer Evans, " Your Psychology Project: The Essential Guide ." Sage, 2007.
  • David Gilborn, quoted by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler in " Writing for Peer-Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published ." Routledge, 2013.
  • Sharon J. Gerson and Steven M. Gerson, " Technical Writing: Process and Product ." Pearson, 2003
  • Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, " Handbook of Technical Writing ." Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006
  • Robert Day and Barbara Gastel, " How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper ," 7th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
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