10 Tips to Improve Your Abstract Writing

Joseph M. Firriolo, MD (@jomarkf)
Plastic Surgery Resident
University of California, Davis

Laura C. Nuzzi, BA
Clinical Research Specialist
Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School

The ability to craft an intriguing, accurate, and accessible abstract is an invaluable scientific writing skill. For manuscripts, abstracts function as a preview of your paper and play a decisive role in whether people will decide to read the entirety of your work. For scientific meeting submissions, the abstract is the only representation of your research available to conference organizers and therefore plays a crucial role in whether your work is accepted for presentation.

After spending weeks, months, or even years on research projects, many investigators struggle to effectively distil their work into abstract form. Below are some tips to improve your abstract writing.

1. Pay attention to submission guidelines.

Every journal and scientific meeting sets their own submission guidelines. Carefully read the author instructions; pay attention to word count limits, style guidelines, subheading requirements, and any other additional instructions. Most scientific journal editors will send work back to authors who fail to satisfy these requirements. It may be helpful to review several abstracts of recent manuscripts published by your target journal to get a feel for writing style. Scientific meeting organizers may reject work that does not comply with author instructions.

2. Know your audience.

Plastic surgery is a broad specialty. Our research has implications for other medical specialties and a wide range of other clinical and scientific disciplines (e.g. nursing, public health, and genetics). Consequently, we often find ourselves writing for a diverse audience.

Considering this, it is important to:

  • Limit the use of jargon and to define all technical or specialized terms.
  • Introduce all acronyms/abbreviations the first time they appear in text.
  • Reflect on the audiences that you believe need to hear about your work, and highlight the implications of your research for these various groups. For instance, if writing a paper with a pediatric focus, you may want to use part of your conclusion to reiterate the “take home message” for Pediatricians and Primary Care Providers.

3. Title.

Titles should be concise and convey your most salient finding. Titles that are 12 words or less are more likely to be read and computed by search engines. Your title is representative of your work; make it descriptive and aim to place your top keywords in the first part of the title.

4. Background. 

The background should highlight a clinical problem or gap in the existing literature. Briefly explain the clinical problem and gap, and launch right into: 1) your proposed research aim that will address this gap, and 2) the potential implications and clinical benefits of your findings. Ideally the background should be 1-2 sentences.

5. Methods.

The Methods section should enable the reader to quickly understand the critical aspects of your study design. Many readers often first scan abstract titles and methods sections to determine if the rest of the abstract and manuscript is worth reading.

Some tips for a concise methods section:

  • For clinical research, identify your study design. Examples include: case report/series, cross-sectional study, case-control study, cohort study, randomized control trial, systematic review, meta-analysis.
  • Describe the essential methodology that will address your research question.
  • Define study groups for comparison.
  • Define variables of interest and how these were measured.

6. Results.

It may be helpful to organize your results section like an upside down pyramid. For clinical research studies, first broadly state the total number of subjects in your sample and statistics for any important demographic variables (such as age,  gender, diagnoses, follow-up time). From there, report key findings that specifically address your original study aim. Do not bog down your readers with sub-analyses or too many values. Denote values only where necessary.

7. Conclusions.

Summarize your major findings using short, declarative sentences. Make your findings tangible and exciting to your readers. Make sure your conclusion addresses your original study aims  Stress the importance of your findings, and summarize the “take home” messages for plastic surgeons as well as for people from other disciplines as necessary.

8. Key words.

Manuscript submission typically requires 3-5 key words along with the abstract. Use a mixture of general and specific keywords that would help your target audience find your abstract. One useful tip is to copy and paste your abstract into the ‘MeSH on Demand’ website.1This helps you select the most relevant MeSH terms for your abstract, thereby aiding future readers who will search for your work on PubMed and similar databases.

9. ACGME Questions. 

When submitting your abstract to a scientific meeting, many scientific/surgical bodies will require you to answer two ‘ACGME Questions’. These questions are:

1)   What professional practice gap does this address?

2)   How will this abstract influence change in performance or patient outcomes?

Your abstract’s background/purpose and conclusions sections address these questions. However, you may use your answers to elaborate on the significance and impact of your study design and findings. Be sure to address each question with your strongest arguments first, as to “not bury the lead.” Even in cases when you are not required to provide answers to these questions, it is worthwhile to consider whether someone unfamiliar with your work would be able to answer these questions after reading your abstract.

10. Get someone to read over your work.

Ask others to provide feedback on your written work. Have a fresh pair of eyes not only detect typographical and grammatical errors, but also to assess whether your abstract is engaging, accessible, and coherent.

  • Engaging. Have an honest friend/colleague tell you whether they perceived your work interesting and significant after reading your abstract.
  • Accessible. Is the abstract comprehensible to your target audience?
  • Coherent. Are the project aims, methods, results, and conclusions all supportive of one another?

[1] National Institutes of Health: US National Library of Medicine. MeSH on Demand.https://meshb.nlm.nih.gov/MeSHonDemand. Accessed July 3, 2018.

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