How to Write an Abstract
Koopman, Carnegie Mellon University
Because on-line search databases typically contain only abstracts, it is
vital to write a complete but concise description of your work to entice
potential readers into obtaining a copy of the full paper. This article
describes how to write a good computer architecture abstract for both
conference and journal papers. Writers should follow a checklist consisting of:
motivation, problem statement, approach, results, and conclusions. Following
this checklist should increase the chance of people taking the time to obtain
and read your complete paper.
Now that the use of on-line publication databases is prevalent, writing a
really good abstract has become even more important than it was a decade ago.
Abstracts have always served the function of "selling" your work. But
now, instead of merely convincing the reader to keep reading the rest of the
attached paper, an abstract must convince the reader to leave the comfort of an
office and go hunt down a copy of the article from a library (or worse, obtain
one after a long wait through inter-library loan). In a business context, an
"executive summary" is often the only piece of a report read
by the people who matter; and it should be similar in content if not tone to a
journal paper abstract.
Checklist: Parts of an Abstract
Despite the fact that an abstract is quite brief, it must do almost as much
work as the multi-page paper that follows it. In a computer architecture paper,
this means that it should in most cases include the following sections. Each
section is typically a single sentence, although there is room for creativity.
In particular, the parts may be merged or spread among a set of sentences. Use
the following as a checklist for your next abstract:
Why do we care about the problem and the results? If the problem isn't
obviously "interesting" it might be better to put motivation first;
but if your work is incremental progress on a problem that is widely recognized
as important, then it is probably better to put the problem statement first to
indicate which piece of the larger problem you are breaking off to work on.
This section should include the importance of your work, the difficulty of the
area, and the impact it might have if successful.
- Problem statement:
What problem are you trying to solve? What is the scope of your
work (a generalized approach, or for a specific situation)? Be careful not to
use too much jargon. In some cases it is appropriate to put the problem
statement before the motivation, but usually this only works if most readers
already understand why the problem is important.
How did you go about solving or making progress on the problem? Did you
use simulation, analytic models, prototype construction, or analysis of field
data for an actual product? What was the extent of your work (did you
look at one application program or a hundred programs in twenty different
programming languages?) What important variables did you control,
ignore, or measure?
What's the answer? Specifically, most good computer architecture papers
conclude that something is so many percent faster, cheaper, smaller, or
otherwise better than something else. Put the result there, in numbers. Avoid
vague, hand-waving results such as "very", "small", or
"significant." If you must be vague, you are only given license to do
so when you can talk about orders-of-magnitude improvement. There is a tension
here in that you should not provide numbers that can be easily misinterpreted,
but on the other hand you don't have room for all the caveats.
What are the implications of your answer? Is it going to change the
world (unlikely), be a significant "win", be a nice hack, or simply
serve as a road sign indicating that this path is a waste of time (all of the
previous results are useful). Are your results general, potentially
generalizable, or specific to a particular case?
An abstract must be a fully self-contained, capsule description of the
paper. It can't assume (or attempt to provoke) the reader into flipping through
looking for an explanation of what is meant by some vague statement. It must
make sense all by itself. Some points to consider include:
- Meet the word count limitation. If your abstract runs too long, either it
will be rejected or someone will take a chainsaw to it to get it down to size.
Your purposes will be better served by doing the difficult task of cutting
yourself, rather than leaving it to someone else who might be more interested
in meeting size restrictions than in representing your efforts in the best
possible manner. An abstract word limit of 150 to 200 words is common.
- Any major restrictions or limitations on the results should be stated, if
only by using "weasel-words" such as "might",
"could", "may", and "seem".
- Think of a half-dozen search phrases and keywords that people looking for
your work might use. Be sure that those exact phrases appear in your abstract,
so that they will turn up at the top of a search result listing.
- Usually the context of a paper is set by the publication it appears in (for
example, IEEE Computer magazine's articles are generally about computer
technology). But, if your paper appears in a somewhat un-traditional venue, be
sure to include in the problem statement the domain or topic area that it is
really applicable to.
- Some publications request "keywords". These have two purposes.
They are used to facilitate keyword index searches, which are greatly reduced
in importance now that on-line abstract text searching is commonly used.
However, they are also used to assign papers to review committees or editors,
which can be extremely important to your fate. So make sure that the keywords
you pick make assigning your paper to a review category obvious (for example,
if there is a list of conference topics, use your chosen topic area as one of
the keyword tuples).
Writing an efficient abstract is hard work, but will repay you with
increased impact on the world by enticing people to read your publications.
Make sure that all the components of a good abstract are included in the next
one you write.
Michaelson, Herbert, How to Write & Publish Engineering Papers and
Reports, Oryx Press, 1990. Chapter 6 discusses abstracts.
Cremmins, Edward, The Art of Abstracting 2nd Edition, Info Resources
Press, April 1996. This is an entire book about abstracting, written primarily
for professional abstractors.
Phil Koopman 10/97