Abstracts are a challenging but important part of any fellowship application. The abstract is often the first (or one of the first) components of your application that the reviewer sees. Therefore, it is important to use the abstract to give the reviewer the best overall impression of your application. The length of the abstract can be anywhere from a few sentences to a full page, but the same principles for successful abstract writing still apply.
Through working with GradFund over the years, both as the mentee and now as the mentor, I have picked up on a few common tendencies of mine when writing abstracts. If you do these too, then hopefully you will benefit from reading about how I deal with these habits of mine.
1) Too much background:
- Tendency: When I write an abstract, my initial reaction is to give a full lecture on all of the possibly necessary background information before getting to the purpose of my research. This is not helpful to the reviewer. They will get bored and miss the points you are trying to make.
- Solution: Embrace the tendency! Fleshing out all the background details helps me lay it all on the table for the first draft or two (or three…). It also feels good – it reminds me of how much I know about my field! Then I figure out what is actually important (usually, with the help of a GradFund advisor) before cutting it down. Also, make your background work for you. Don’t just reiterate facts; indicate why they are important and how they inform your work.
2) Stating the purpose/hypothesis too late:
- Tendency: This goes in line with my first bad habit: I want to give #ALLTHEFACTS and then only discuss the purpose of my research and/or hypothesis once all the facts have been discussed. You want to capture the reviewer’s attention, especially in something as short as an abstract, so leaving the purpose of your work to the middle will not help it stand out.
- Solution: This is easy – move it to the beginning! It will start your abstract off strong, and it will force you to get to the point regarding your background. Don’t be afraid to write, “This project will examine X.” It will leave the reviewer with no guess work, and that will be appreciated.
3) Being indirect or unspecific about results:
- Tendency: Especially as results and experiments are still evolving, I tend towards using passive voice, indirect verbs, and qualifiers. I also tend not to be specific about the results I have acquired. It is important to evoke confidence when you write about your research!
- Solution: Use what you have already written about your results as a guide and ask yourself what you are actually trying communicate. Are you effectively communicating not only your results but also their implications? Could you use more specific language to be more direct (without using jargon)?
Do you have any tips for writing abstracts? If so, leave them in the comments below! For another perspective, also check out Ben’s post on The Art of the Abstract. And as always, if you’d like us to review an abstract with you, make an appointment with us.