APA: Developing an abstract

When coaching students on academic writing, one of the components of the scholarly paper that often becomes a roadblock is the development of the Abstract.

Before discussing the technical requirements and substantial benefits of constructing a quality abstract, consider the following comparison:
If you were moving from Orlando to Seattle, and wanted to know the overall picture of the trip, you might go to a map service such as maps.google.com and receive an image such as this:

This image shows you where the journey begins and ends, and the major turns along the way. You can see the major cities that you will pass through, but not every city and town along the route. You will notice significant geographical changes, but not the subtle shifts in the landscape.

This is your abstract.
The word abstract means, “Disassociated from any specific instance” (merriam-webster, 2013). Just as the map above does not provide the specifics of your journey, the abstract will not include the specifics of your paper.
Formatting guidelines can be found at a variety of sources, one of the most popular and respected being the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) website. Some basic rules of APA (6th edition) to follow in the construction of this roadmap are:
  • Keep it short – 150 to 250 words
  • No personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them)
  • Don’t use lingo, abbreviations, citations, or figures
  • Don’t present a conclusion unsupported by the data presented
Just like the snapshot of the map above, your abstract should provide your reader the ability to see your whole journey from beginning to end quickly. Avoiding personal pronouns avoids infusing contexts of gender, number and case. Facts and figures requiring citation or detailed explanation discourage the reader from moving deeper into the document, while unsupported conclusions create the impression of bias and may be misleading as they are open to interpretation by the reader.
Many students confuse the abstract with their introduction. While the technical elements are different, there is another key difference. A well-written introduction should seduce you into the paper. It should create a desire to read more based on curiosity and intrigue.
Most scholars are busy and do not want to read an entire article that does not specifically address the topic or issue they are exploring. The “big picture” provided by the abstract allows the researcher to quickly determine if the paper is worth further examination. It reduces time wasted on articles that turn out to be irrelevant to the desired intellectual journey. You would not want to set out on your road-trip with just the beginning of the map, not certain if it was heading you in the right direction!
Creswell (2014, p. 109) outlines some major components that are included in most abstracts:
  • Begin with the issue or problem
  • Use the word PURPOSE to explain the phenomenon to be studied or explained
  • Include an overview of the data which will be included to support or analyze the purpose (type, where collected, and from whom)
  • Include themes arising from the study
  • Finish with the practical implications of the study
Not all APA papers require and abstract, but it is a useful tool that is easy to add if required or desired.
A paper with a quality abstract is more likely to be selected for publication, read by other scholars, and cited in future research.
Not every abstract will contain all of these, the depth and breadth of the paper will guide the development. However even the shortest paper can benefit from its inclusion. The following is an example of an abstract that could be included at the beginning of this post:
The following paper addresses the confusion faced by college students when constructing an abstract in scholarly writing. The purpose of this analysis is to clarify the need for, benefits of, and required writing components. Through the use of an analogy and an overview of scholarly resources, a clarified procedure of abstract development is explained. Students and teachers will benefit from the simplification of an often complex process through and accessible and relatable discussion.
Like any skill, the transformative process is attained through the creation of habits of mind (Janesick, 2011) – developed through practice. Simply put, the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Creswell, J. (2014) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (4th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA. Sage.
Janesick, V. (2011) Stretching Exercises for Qualitative Researchers (3rd edition). Los Angeles, CA. Sage.

2 thoughts on “APA: Developing an abstract

  1. Can I simply just say what a relief to uncover someone that actually understands what they are discussing on the internet.
    You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
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