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Writing a strong abstract is a daunting prospect for many researchers. It is, after all, these 150-250 words that determine whether your poster or paper will be accepted, or whether a reader will continue on and read your paper or poster.

The key here is to make your abstract, like your other communications, message-driven. You want your abstract to catch the reader's attention, and you want it to convey your main message clearly and succinctly.

Follow the tips below, and you’ll be well on your way.

  1. Above all, follow precisely the instructions about length, font, etc. for the particular journal or poster session for which you’re writing. In general, your abstract should be one paragraph, 100-250 words, and should summarize the main sections of your paper, particularly your principal findings. If the journal requires it, don’t forget to include your study limitations.
  2. One size does not fit all. If you’re submitting to a meeting or conference, be sure you understand its theme or focus and tailor your abstract to fit. For example, if the meeting is focused on policy issues and you submit an abstract that highlights a clinical issue without relating it to policy, your paper or poster is not likely to be selected. When submitting a paper or poster to several meetings or journals, you have to tailor the abstract to that audience.
  3. Do your homework. Look at abstracts from the prior year of the particular conference you’re interested in. What are the common elements of the accepted papers/posters?
  4. Choose a title that emphasizes the importance of your findings and put the title in active voice. For example: “Effects of Obesity on Older Adults” is less effective than “Obesity Causes Liver Failure in Older Adults.”
  5. Lead with your main message/primary findings. This should guide the rest of the abstract and be supported by your sub-messages/evidence. Don’t go into your secondary findings—they’ll only detract from your message. Also, be sure not to overstate the implications of your findings.
  6. Use your best lines. If you’re having a hard time distilling your paper into a several succinct sentences try this: Go through your paper and pick out the key sentences. Cut and paste them into a draft abstract. Then, look at what you’ve got and start combining, summarizing, and deleting. Keep editing until you’re within your word limitations and your message is clear. Also, resist the urge to use too much “real estate” on the Background section. Aim to use less than 20% of your space on this.
  7. Eliminate technical language or jargon. Although abstracts are reviewed “blind,” your discipline-specific jargon or rhetoric will give you away if you’re applying to a journal or meeting of a different discipline. Also, define your terms when necessary.
  8. Consider writing your abstract before the paper/article/poster. This is not the traditional method, but it can be extremely effective. You’ve completed your research and you have a clear sense of the major findings and their importance. Writing the abstract first can bring a focus to your message, and therefore your abstract, that you might otherwise struggle to find.
  9. Edit, edit, edit! Remember, your abstract is the equivalent of your elevator speech. You’ve got a few lines to draw people into your paper—make them work for you!
  10. And finally, if your abstract isn’t accepted that’s okay. See this as a learning opportunity. What you learn can help you strengthen your next abstract. Also, papers aren’t the only way to present your research. Posters are an excellent opportunity to showcase your work.

EXAMPLES
This is an example of an award-winning abstract from Peter Marimaldi, PhD, MPH, LCSW, Associate Professor and Hartford Faculty Scholar at Simmons School of Social Work. His paper was accepted for the multidisciplinary Society for Behavioral Medicine conference themed “Bridging Boundaries in Behavioral Medicine: Transdisciplinary, Translational, Transcultural and Transnational.”

Patient Delay Following Abnormal Mammography: A Comparison of Women by Ethnicity and Health Beliefs
During the past decade, decreases in all cancers, including breast cancer, have been attributed to early detection and timely treatment.  However, the disparity in breast cancer mortality rates between specific racial/ethnic groups underscores the importance of initiatives to shorten diagnostic and treatment delays for women of diverse backgrounds. 
Rosenstock’s Health Belief Model (HBM) was used as the conceptual basis for this study. The primary purpose was to examine perceived susceptibility, perceived barriers, and self-efficacy associated with delays in decision making among low-income Latina and White women who were told that they needed additional diagnostic tests after receiving abnormal mammography results. Women in this sample were within 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (n=225 Latina, n=107 White). The dependent variable was the self reported time to decide what to do after being told that diagnostic tests were needed.  The independent variables were race/ethnicity, and perceived susceptibility, anxiety barriers, and self efficacy.  Using logistic regression, race/ethnicity, perceived susceptibility and anxiety barriers contributed to delays in decision making.  White women were 1.68 (95% CI = .93, 3.03) times more likely to decide in less than a day than were Latina women.  Women without perceived susceptibility or anxiety barriers were 1.93 (95% CI = 1.15, 3.23) and 1.79 (95% CI = .93, 3.44) times more likely, respectively, to decide in less than a day than women with perceived susceptibility or anxiety barriers.  Additionally, perceived susceptibility and anxiety barriers contributed to the likelihood of delay for Latina and White women, respectively.  Shared health beliefs within racial/ethnic groups can inform efficacious health messages and ultimately eliminate disparities. 

The examples below show two different abstract styles. The first, written in a narrative format by Rebecca L. Trotta, MSN, RN, was accepted into the Journal of Palliative Medicine and is an example of tailoring an abstract to an audience, in this case presenting a nursing perspective in a medical journal. The second example includes sub-heads and is from the 2006 GSA conference, themed "Education and the Gerontological Imagination."

Quality of Death:  A Dimensional Analysis of Palliative Care in the Nursing Home
Palliative care in nursing homes is increasingly discussed, investigated, and implemented, yet the term lacks conceptual clarity and definition. Furthermore, the components, process, and outcomes of palliative care as it is delivered in the nursing home have not been clearly articulated. This paper provides a dimensional analysis of palliative care in the nursing home to elucidate the concept, and its context and consequences, as portrayed through available literature.  As a method, dimensional analysis is rooted in symbolic interaction and grounded theory. As such, it provides a useful tool with which to analyze existing literature on palliative care in the nursing home. In this dimensional analysis, communication is the dominant perspective of palliative care in the nursing home. This analysis demonstrates that the consequences of palliative care in the nursing home are personhood and identity, and quality of death rather than quality of life. These consequences suggest that the focus of palliative care should be on the nursing home resident and the dying experience, rather than quality of life and issues around living that exclude the dying experience and do not acknowledge the personhood and identity of the resident. These elements represent a shift in focus away from one that does not include death, toward the dying experience, and that such a change in focus is necessary to achieve palliative care in the nursing home. Finally, the analysis elucidates potential outcome measures for the study of palliative care in nursing homes and outlines possibilities for further research.

An Ethnographic Approach to Understanding Supervision of NACs
Elena O. Siegel Ph(c), MN, University of Washington School of Nursing, Heather M Young PhD, GNP, Grace Phelps Distinguished Professor and Director of the John A. Hartford Center for Geriatric Nursing, OHSU School of Nursing, and Pamela H. Mitchell PhD, RN, Elizabeth S. Soule Professor and Associate Dean for Research, University of Washington School of Nursing 

 

Background: Nursing assistants certified (NACs) provide the majority of direct care in nursing homes. Nurses are responsible for supervising NACs, however limited evidence raises question regarding the adequacy of role preparedness and role enactment. The purpose of this study was to explore the nurse’s supervisory role within the context of organizational culture, structures, and systems. Methods: An ethnographic approach included 31 semi-structured interviews, 170 hours observation, and document review at three nursing homes in the Pacific Northwest. Results: A Concept Model of prevailing themes was developed using Glaser and Strauss’ constant comparative method for analyzing qualitative data. The nurse’s supervisory role occurs within a context of the nurse-NAC dyad and the dyad’s interactions with organizational-level systems and expectations for resident and staff outcomes. Conclusions: Major themes for discussion include: (1) nurses making sense of the supervisory role, (2) supportive resources and systems, and (3) professional role development.

Our many thanks to Peter Marimaldi, Barbara Berkman, Eric Coleman, and Neville Strumpf for their guidance on this section.

TOOLS
Scientific Communication I
 by Curtis Clark at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, offers the basics on writing abstracts.

Writing Abstracts: The Difficulty of Being Human and Scientific from the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh has great explanations of the importance of each component of an abstract.

SHARE
The Hartford Online Communications Resource depends on the active participation of the foundation’s grantees. If you run across a helpful resource on writing abstracts, or if you have examples of outstanding abstracts, please let us know so we can share it on the site and make it available to the rest of the Hartford network.

Click here to tell us about any new information about abstracts or attach an abstract you think others in the network might benefit from imitating.

   
 
   
   
 

Try writing your abstract first instead of last.

This allows you to hone in on your most important message(s) without being distracted by the wealth of other information you will present in the paper.

   
   
   
 

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