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||University of Toronto
Health Sciences Writing Centre
Writing an Abstract
the Health Sciences and Social
An abstract should be a brief, comprehensive summary of the
contents of a document; it allows the reader to survey the contents of the
document quickly and decide whether to continue reading. It is also, like
a title, used by abstracting and information services to index and
An abstract should represent as much as possible of the
quantitative and qualitative information in your paper, and also reflect
its reasoning. Typically, an abstract answers these questions in about
The abstract needs to be dense with
information but also readable, well-organized, brief, and self-contained.
Your readers expect you to summarize your conclusions as well as your
purpose, methods, and main findings. Emphasize the different points in
proportion to the emphasis they receive in the body of your
- Purpose: What is the nature of your study/topic and why did
you do it?
- Methods: What did you do, and how?
- Results: What did you find?
- Conclusions:What can you logically conclude through the
analysis of your data?
- Relevance: How do your findings relate to the practice of
1. A good abstract is accurate:
Comparing your abstract with the outline of the paper's
headings is a good way to verify your accuracy.
- it correctly reflects the purpose and content of your paper
- it includes only information that actually appears in the paper
- if you're doing a study, states whether it extends or replicates previous
2. A good abstract is self-contained:You can't ask your reader to go
elsewhere for understanding of what you say in your abstract. Therefore,
- define all abbreviations (except units of measurement) and acronyms
- spell out names of tests and drugs (use generic names for drugs)
- define unique terms
3. A good abstract is concise and
- make each sentence as informative as possible, especially the lead
- begin with the most important information; i.e., the purpose or thesis, or
perhaps the results and conclusions
- the abstract should not waste space with promises...
study will examine pain control at Hospital X.
(weak -- a vague promise)
- ...the abstract should deliver.
Of the caregivers at
Hospital X, 53% actively encouraged epidurals for patients who were "hostile
or extremely resistant" to artificial pain control.
(good -- but only if this detail is one of
the most significant finds)
- don't waste space by repeating the title
- include in the abstract only the four or five most important concepts,
findings, or implications
- conserve characters:
- use digits for numbers unless the number begins a sentence
- abbreviate whenever possible (e.g., vs. for versus)
- use active voice (but avoid personal pronouns I or we)
4. A good abstract is non-evaluative:
- report rather than evaluate
- don't add to or comment on what is in the body of the paper
5. A good abstract is coherent and
- write in clear and vigorous prose
- use key words from your paper
- use active rather than passive voice (the study tested vs. it
was tested by the study)
- use present tense to describe results that are still applicable, or
conclusions drawn; also for the question and answer
- use past tense to describe what was done and what was found
- use a cautious present tense verb for implications (e.g., "may mediate")
- avoid sentences that contain no real information (e.g., "Policy
implications are discussed")
- write short sentences
- use simple words; avoid jargon
M. Procter, Coordinator, Writing Support, U of T; J. Hunter, Dept. of
Physical Therapy, U of T; International Organization for Standardization, ISO
214: 1976; Publication manual of the American Psychological Association.
(1994). Fourth Edition.
|Original version, October 1997
Prepared by Dr. D.
Taylor and J. B. Rose
HTML edition by Dennis G.
For Distribution at the University of