Writing the Abstract

Writing a good abstract is a sophisticated skill.  There are many sources of reference on the web but sometimes advice appears to conflict and too much may confuse rather than help.  You might try keying in "writing an abstract" into a search engine such as GOOGLE. 

The following is a brief guide.

What is an abstract?

A concise and clear summary of:

  • What you set out to do and why
  • How you did it
  • What you found
  • (recommendations)

. . . . which is capable of being read independently of your report.

What isn’t it?

It is NOT:

  • an introduction – its purpose is to summarise not introduce
  • a plan to which your report is written – it is written last to summarize what your report contains.
  • extracts from your main report – it must stand alone.

What purpose does it serve?

It forms the first "content" page of your undergraduate dissertation and is therefore the first thing to be read by the assessor and forms the first impression of your work.

It may also share one or more of the following:

  • allow a reader to decide whether or not to read the full text because your research and conclusions have relevance for his/her research.
  • include keywords essential to your topic which may be searched for in an electronic database
  • indicate the thoroughness and integrity of your research
  • with the addition of just a title and your name, be suitable for inclusion in a printed or electronic index where it would identify the potential value of your research to another, or stand as a summary you might submit as a proposal to a conference.

How long?

200 words. Length is very important. 200 words will be adequate provided you write concisely and are summarising, not re-writing, the contents of your report. Electronic databases automatically truncate abstracts beyond a certain length so keywords associated with your results, conclusions or recommendations may be omitted. (e.g. MEDLINE truncates everything beyond 400 words.)


An abstract should include:




  • Why did you undertake the study? What were you examining, or testing or investigating. Return to your research question and ensure you have re-stated it concisely, coherently and clearly. A good opening is often, "The study tested . . . ", "The study investigated . . .", "The report examines . . . ".



  • What was done and how did you do it? Be specific, don’t make generalised comments. This is will differ depending on whether yours is an empirical study or a literature review - see the first of the Five Steps below for more guidance

Results and conclusions

What you found?


  • What did you find? State specific outcomes and, if appropriate, draw conclusions.

The results found that 85% of respondents used non-standardised assessments . . . 

There was a significant relationship between . . . . . 


Further points to think about:

Title and author?

Should not be included as these already appear on your title page. However, an abstract should be able to stand alone and simply by adding these your abstract may be ready, for example, for submission to a publisher or conference organiser.

When do you write it?

At the end, AFTER you have finished your dissertation

Five practical steps to writing your abstract

Step 1:
Without looking at your dissertation, write, for each of the bulleted points, a concise but information-rich sentence stating:


Literature Review Empirical Project
  • What the study set out to do

  • What themes you identified in the literature

  • How you integrated these themes to reach your conclusions

  • What conclusions did you draw

  • What the study set out to do

  • What method(s) you adopted

  • What results were achieved

  • What conclusions can be drawn

  • (What recommendations your research leads you to make.)


Step 2:
Add further sentences as required (and word count permits) first to results and conclusions and then to methodology – in that order.

Step 3:
Edit and revise your sentences for greater precision, clarity and conciseness.

Step 4:
Add further content but do not exceed 200 words.

Step 5:
Return to your abstract after a gap of at least a day. Read it as a stand-alone document and revise as necessary. If possible do this several times and over a period of time.


Use the active voice in general although it is perfectly acceptable to use the passive voice if this enhances brevity and clarity. However, avoid the use of the personal pronouns "I" and "We".


Active voice Passive voice
The study investigated the incidence of . . . . .  The incidence of . . . was studied.
Many researchers recognise the influence of culture on the therapeutic process.  The influence of culture on the therapeutic process has been recognised by many researchers.
Health professionals need to provide balanced information . . .  Balanced information . . . needs to be provided by health professionals.

For a fuller explanation of active and passive voices click here: active/passive


An abstract should not normally contain references.


It is not possible to state a hard and fast rule. You would normally expect to use the present tense to describe results and conclusions that are still applicable.

Horse riding is perceived by individuals working in the field to improve the psychosocial well being . . . 

You would use the past tense to describe what was done and found.

The study adopted a quantitative methodology using a postal questionnaire . . . 

tl mar 03

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