Imagine for a moment that you're standing in the lobby of an office building. In front of you is a row of elevators, and you're waiting patiently for one to arrive to whisk you up to the 15th floor, where a job interview awaits you. Then, right when the light flashes and the doors beep open, a woman comes around the corner and enters the elevator with you. Immediately (because you've done your research), you realize that this woman is the CEO of the company you'll be interviewing with up on the 15th floor. What do you say? You have to be quick-you only have 30 seconds, maybe a minute, to make a good impression on this woman and convince her that you're worth a longer look, then the ride will be over. When you get off the elevator she may either take a few minutes out of her day to change your life or she may go on with her day without thinking of you again.
The talk you'd give in this scenario is what's known as the elevator pitch - so called because you have the length of an elevator ride to convince a person that you have something valuable to say. The elevator pitch is very common in the business community. Sales people and those looking to network always need to have a short speech at the ready in case an opportunity to impress presents itself.
So, what's all this got to do with academic writing? Scientists may not be in the habit of selling themselves, but the concept of an elevator pitch should sound familiar to anyone who's ever had to write a research paper. A short summary that provides background along with the highlights of your accomplishments - that's just another way to say abstract.
Applying the elevator pitch to scientific abstracts
Abstracts - the short summaries that precede research papers - can often be one of the most challenging parts of research paper to write. Precisely because you have so few words, the task of refining your work into a few key statements can seem difficult or even impossible. But scientists aren't the only ones who need to be able to condense complex ideas into a few sentences.
Many of the same advice that businessmen use to build elevator pitches can also be useful to scientists looking to write a catchy abstract. After all, the central idea is the same: you want to distill your work down to a few key sentences that will capture the attention of your audience and encourage them to seek out the full-length version of your product. For salespeople that might mean a meeting or interview to explore a business relationship. For scientists, this means getting readers to move from the relatively easy process of reading an abstract on to the more difficult task of reading the entire paper.
With a little bit of tweaking, it's easy to adapt the guidelines for a good elevator pitch into great advice for anyone struggling with the abstract writing process.
Hook the reader
Every new business is looking to exploit a niche that's underserved by the market, and scientists are looking to do the same thing. While a salesperson might try to hook an investor by talking about potential customers, a scientific abstract should focus on drawing the reader's attention to holes in the research landscape that a particular paper is trying to fill. What unanswered questions are you addressing? How is what you're doing different from what everyone else is doing? And, above all else, why should the reader care about what you have to say. People are busy, and if the abstract is your hook to get people to read your paper, the first few sentence of the abstract are your hook to get people interested in just finishing this one short paragraph.
Tell a complete story
Everybody understands narratives that have a beginning, middle, and end, and your abstract should endeavor to work within this format as well. Your story starts with the hook, which tells the reader why your research is necessary, then continues with the methods you used to address this particular question and what results you found, then concludes with a look forward at the possible impact of your findings. In other words, your abstract needs to tell a complete tale. The reader should be able to gather all the important information they need from this single paragraph, and they shouldn't have to refer back to the main body of the paper for missing information. Ideally, after finishing the abstract the reader will want to go to your paper to learn more, but often this won't be the case. Particularly when it comes to work published in journals, the abstract is the only section of your paper that readers will see, so make sure that you tell your whole story while you have the reader's attention.
Answer important questions
Part of pitching an idea is anticipating questions the listener is going to ask and answering them before they get the chance. This can be a challenge for salespeople, but fortunately those writing scientific abstracts have it a little easier, since every abstract needs to answer the same four basic questions:
Why is this work necessary?
How did you do it?
What did you find?
Why does what you found matter?
You'll notice that these correspond to the main sections of an IMRAD paper (introduction, methodology, results, and discussion), which isn't an accident. An abstract should follow the same arc as the rest of your paper, just in a very condensed form.
Know your audience
Whenever you're trying to sell a product, you need to know something about who you're selling to, and that's true for abstracts as well. In particular, you need to know what kind of formatting is required by your professor, committee, or publisher. There are significant differences among disciplines, and even in the same field, when it comes to abstract format, so make sure to tailor yours to meet those requirement. For example, there are two basic types of abstracts: simple and structured. In simple formats, all that's needed is a single paragraph, usually around 300 words, that summarizes your work. Structured formats, on the other hand, require that abstracts be broken up with pre-determined headings that are specific to every journal or dissertation committee. When preparing your paper, it's important that you know which type of abstract will be required.
Update your pitch
Business plans are constantly changing, and it's likely that your manuscript will also go through several iterations before it reaches its final state. Between advisor recommendations, reviewer comments, and your need to revise your work, there are bound to be plenty of changes to work on as it winds its way to completion, and your abstract needs to evolve too. When you make revisions to results or shift the focus on a particular section of your paper, those changes need to be made in the abstract also: nobody is going to be impressed if they get lured in by your abstract only to find that there are discrepancies between it and the rest of your work. Usually these differences aren't deliberate - often small updates and edits to the main text of the paper are accidently neglected when that same text appears in the abstract. Updating is especially important if you're reusing phrases or keywords from elsewhere in the paper or title so that your work maintains a cohesive message.
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