Writing a Great Abstract

Tips from the Experts

At ISA headquarters, we regularly get asked for advice on writing a great abstract for consideration on the conference program. Of course, our program content is decided by the many volunteers who serve as program chairs and section program chairs. So, instead of trying to answer those questions ourselves, we thought you’d like to hear from the experts.

We talked to some of our conference experts and asked them what makes for a great abstract, what are some common mistakes they see, and what would be some advice for first-timers. Check out what they had to say below!

Meet the Experts

Matt Baum

Matt Baum

Harvard University
Cornelia Navari

Cornelia Navari

University of Buckingham
Pat James

Patrick James

University of Southern California
Jacqui True

Jacqui True

Monash University
"What makes a great abstract?"
Matt Baum
This should be the “elevator pitch” for a study; that is, an overview that hits the high points in about one minute. It should very concisely summarize the topic, how it fits into the broader literature, the contribution, the research strategy, the key findings, and the broader implications.
Pat James

Two aspects come to mind: content and style.

Content often is restricted to something like 150 or even 100 words, so there is little or no room to spare. You need to get things across quickly! Essentials are as follows:

  • An initial sentence that connects directly with the paper’s title.
  • Subsequent sentences that convey the academic triangle of theorizing, method and data. What is your theoretical framework? How will it be evaluated? What kind of data is involved? These questions should be answered in a basic way by the abstract of any research paper. If the paper instead is a review essay, the question about method goes away, but the other two still should be answered.
  • Outline consecutively, in one sentence each, the main sections of the paper.
  • Finish up with a final sentence that includes what you most want the reader to be thinking about as they move on to reading the paper.

With respect to style, I suggest the institution of two tests once the abstract is written. The first I call the “breath test”. It should be possible to read each sentence of the abstract aloud, comfortably, after taking just a single breath per sentence. The point here is that long sentences are not good at this stage of the exposition because you do not want the reader’s attention to wander. The “Time test” is the second one to use. Here I mean that a reader of Time should be able to follow your abstract just as easily as a story in that magazine. In sum, a great abstract will be conveyed in a manner that is easy to follow and not off-putting.

Cornelia Navari

The ideal abstract, from the point of view of panel planning, has three parts. 1. statement of the area of concern or disputation 2. statement of the thesis or argument 3. implications for further research.

A short example from what I am working on now:

Title: Morgenthau and the idea of the National Interest: German or American?

1. The 'moral dignity' of the national interest was the concept M. developed to anchor his power politics and to point American foreign policy in the 'right direction'. Recent scholarship has tended to emphasise the 'Germanness' of Morgenthau, and the continental influences upon him, particularly his differences with Schmidt.

2. This paper argues, on the contrary, that there is no such notion in 'early Morgenthau, that it is not German anyhow, but essentially an American, or more accurately an Anglo-American idea; that Morgenthau developed it to participate in an American debate about appropriate responses to the Cold War, and that in developing it he explicitly drew on a British, not German or continental, diplomatic tradition, which he perhaps somewhat imaginatively united to what he tried to demonstrate, mostly successfully, was an embedded tradition in America with the founding fathers.

3. The implication for research on 'ideas in foreign policy' is that close attention should be paid not only to context but to text itself, and how ideas are expounded and developed.

Jacqui True
A great abstract is one that clearly identifies the grand challenge or opportunity explored in the paper and summarises the key insight that the paper will contribute to addressing this challenge or opening up the opportunity. The abstract will also succinctly summarise what actual research the paper is based on – and suggest interesting questions or future ideas that others might examine further.
"What are the most common mistakes you see in abstracts?"
Matt Baum
There are several. First, many abstracts suffer from a lack of editing. They are often too long, poorly written, contain typos, etc. Second, they frequently include a mini-literature review. Unless a paper is directly focused on a particular study (extending or responding to it), making it necessary to cite that study in the abstract, authors should avoid citations in abstracts. Third, they sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Delving too far into the minutiae distracts the reader from the main point of the research. Its more effective to focus on the primary contribution of the paper and its implications, rather than walking the reader through the entire project.
Pat James

Three types of mistakes can be identified: timing, content and lack of reality check.

The first type of error is about timing, i.e., rushing through the abstract at the end of writing process, treating it as an after-thought. Remember that referees see the abstract first when the paper is out under review as an article. If the abstract is unclear, the referee may be ill-disposed the rest of the way. So the abstract is worthy of real attention to get a potential referee in the right frame of mind.

A second kind of error concerns content, most notably, the presence of difficult terminology. There is no space in an abstract to explain complex and unfamiliar terms. Instead, aim to convey originality in a way that any reader can appreciate before neologisms or difficult points regarding methods appear in the body of the paper itself.

Third is the need for a reality check. It is ideal to ask someone who is not in your field at all to read the entire paper to assess its clarity. Failing that opportunity, it makes sense at the very least to get help with the abstract. A person from outside your area of expertise is the ideal critic for the abstract because the priority is on comprehension at point of first contact.

Cornelia Navari

The most common mistakes in abstracts is not to clearly state the argument, or to actually be ignorant of it.

Jacqui True
The most common mistake in an abstract is to state the question or problem without suggesting how research has actually been conducted on it or vice versa the methods used or data collected without highlighting the interesting problem or question that these methods and data speak to.
"Do you have any general tips for first-timers trying to get on to ISA's program?"
Matt Baum
My advice stems from my prior responses. Keep it short; cut to the chase. Spend some time editing it so that it leaves a positive first impression regarding your writing and clarity of thinking. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. That is, tell the reader why they should read this paper. Why is it worth their time? if it connects to a prominent debate in the literature with which readers will be familiar, point that out. But approach it like an elevator pitch: you only have the reader’s attention for a moment. What is the most important thing you can tell readers about your work to make them want to read more?
Pat James

The most direct approach is to seek co-authorship with a more senior scholar. This will help in terms of credibility for the work because of the established reputation of the person with whom you would be collaborating.

Regional and section conferences, in the ISA and other organizations, have higher rates of acceptance than national conferences with respect to paper proposals. Before trying ISA, present your paper and seek its improvement through a prior regional or section conference.

Join the sections of ISA that are appropriate, given your research interests, and become involved. Volunteer for an activity, when such a request comes up, and begin to build a network of scholars and a reputation for getting things done. This will build credibility for your work across the board.

The Junior Scholars Symposium is a wonderful opportunity in particular – I highly recommend it to you!

Cornelia Navari

Link your argument to a prevalent debate or area of dispute; and state it clearly.

Jacqui True
First-timers should always connect their paper and research to major conversations and debates in the subfield and ISA section that they are submitting their abstract to – and explicitly mention these. Linking your scholarship and research to big ideas and ongoing debates is crucial!

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