Abstracts: the genre
Academic researchers rely on article abstracts—summaries published in academic databases— to help them keep up with scholarship in their own field and to survey scholarship in unfamiliar fields. In the natural sciences and the social sciences, abstracts consistently follow a fairly well defined model. By contrast, in the humanities, abstracts vary widely in their format and quality. Some are written by the article’s author; others by librarians or by bibliographers at the database companies who publish them. Some very clearly detail the argument, while some only hint at it or merely describe the topic. Moreover, humanities articles themselves sometimes have aims other than to argue for a single claim; they may be more exploratory or essayistic, in which case it may be difficult to abstract a discernable claim. Still, I want you to be looking for claims, as they are usually there, even if masked as fact-statements.
The language of abstracts remains neutral; abstracts do not evaluate the arguments or develop their own claims. However, for your abstracts here, you may hint at strengths and limitations of the article through descriptive verbs (e.g., asserts, claims, demonstrates, suggests), as long as these terms describe accurately what the article is doing (we would all agree with you). Write your abstract in the third person, referring to the author or authors by name and/or to the article as doing things (e.g., “the authors argue,” “the article reveals,” etc.). Quote only if absolutely necessary. Paraphrase and summarize instead.
Your abstract must be 250 words (min.) to 350 words (max.) and will:
- restate the article’s central question or topical problem
- summarize the article’s central claim(s), conclusions, or results, including all components of multi-part claims.
- identify the article’s source base in detail-‐e.g., genres, dates, authors, titles, etc.
- describe the research and/or analytical methods-‐e.g., theoretical approaches, key concepts, quantitative techniques, etc.
- set the article in the context of its larger aims, if any are apparent.
Altogether, these tasks are closely related to what Joseph Harris calls coming to terms: understanding the aims, methods, and materials of another writer’s work.
Format & citation
Write your abstract in the third person, referring to the author by name (as in my model abstract on Soper’s article).
The citation style here is a mixed one. Since abstracts don’t appear in print, I based the format here on the format of academic book reviews (and added the word count for our purposes).
- Single space, printing to one sheet.
- Full citation in Chicago bibliography style (last name first) at the head of the abstract, as if it is the title of the abstract.
- Byline just below the citation: Abstracted by [your name here].
- Page citations in parenthesis if you quote or paraphrase closely (as in MLA style).
- Word count at bottom in square brackets, e.g.: [256 words].
I am archiving model student abstracts (with their permission) for you to use. See Wp top menu > Cal 1 > Model Abstract to see them all. You will also see one I wrote there as well (on Soper’s article on Irish stereotypes). For other excellent models, see my past students’ abstracts about comics and graphic novels at CXStudies.
Your peers in this class comprise your audience. All abstracts will be available to your peers on the Wp blog. Peers might peruse them for further research ideas. You are also thinking about how you would need to come to terms with this article-‐potentially, at least-‐in your research paper; so in that sense, you are an audience for the abstract.
The intellectual tasks involved in writing abstracts transfer directly to moves you will make in your essays, where you must “come to terms” with analytical methods you want to use and arguments you want to engage–except that you will not be moving beyond the article or pointing out its uses and limitations. More broadly, abstract writing– sophisticated summary-‐provides useful practice in discerning, comprehending, and synthesizing ideas and arguments, and in the act of concision.