Excerpted from Edward P. J. Corbett's The Little Rhetoric and Handbook, 2nd ed. (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1977) by the UWF Writing Lab.
The abstract gives the reader a quick overview of the whole report. Because the abstract is not only an important part of a report but also an increasingly important form of writing aside from the report (especially in information-retrieval systems), it will be discussed at some length here.
Writing abstracts is something of an art, for it demands two skills: skill in reading and skill in writing. Unlike other kinds of writing, the abstract does not require the writer to find something to say. Instead, the writer takes what he or someone else has written and reproduces the substance of the text in a considerably shortened version. But that kind of abbreviation of the text is not as easy as it may appear. One must be a skillful enough reader to be able to pick out the important points in a text and a skillful enough writer to set forth those important points in a coherent form using a limited number of words.
An abstract is in some ways like a sentence outline. A sentence outline sets forth the major points (the roman-numeral divisions) of an essay or article and at least the first level of subordinate points (the capital-letter subdivisions). The difference between an outline and an abstract is that whereas the outline is presented in the form of a listing of points, the abstract is written out in a sequence of sentences. But if you are skillful enough to be able to construct a sentence outline of the main parts of a piece of extended prose, you should be able to pick out the main points that should go into the abstract.
Another way to approach the task of writing an abstract is to develop the skill of picking out the topic sentences of the paragraphs in the body of an essay. However, a collection of all the topic sentences might make your abstract longer than it needs to be and might obscure the relationships and relative importance of the sentences, so you might have to combine two or three topic sentences into a broader generalization and provide connecting links between sentences.
Think of the process of abstracting as a distilling of the essence of a longer piece of prose. You need enough sentences to cover all the major points of the essay, but you have to boil away the supporting details of the longer version. What you are left with is a “concentrate” of the longer essay.
There are two kinds of abstracts: descriptive and informative. The descriptive abstract, which is usually quite short, merely indicates what topics or areas are covered in the longer text. The informative abstract usually gives readers the main points or ideas of the longer text. The difference between the two is illustrated in the following examples.
The three kinds of special writing assignments dealt with in this chapter are writing about literature, writing essay examinations, and writing reports. Sets of questions are proposed to help students generate ideas for an analysis, interpretation, or evaluation of fiction, drama, and poetry. Practical advice is given about how to write satisfactory answers in an essay examination. The special considerations and formats of informative and persuasive reports are discussed, and special attention is paid to the writing of descriptive and informative abstracts.
In writing about literature, the student is involved in one or more of these acts: analyzing, interpreting, or evaluating. In an analysis of a literary text, the two general questions to be answered are (1) what is the work about? and (2) how is the work put together? In an interpretation of literary text, the two general questions to be answered are (1) what did the author mean? and (2) what did the work mean to you? In an evaluation of a literary text, the two general questions to be answered are (1) how well did the author accomplish what he or she set out to do? and (2) was the work worth your time and attention? Sets of more particular questions can lead the student to more specific answers to these general questions.
In writing answers to essay-examination questions, the student should (1) read the questions carefully, (2) address the questions head-on, (3) plan the answers, (4) develop answers adequately, and (5) avoid padding answers. Examples of answers to an examination question in American history illustrate adequate and inadequate answers.
In writing both informative and persuasive reports, the student should give special consideration to the completeness, accuracy, intelligibility, readability, and objectivity of the report. The twelve parts of a typical formal report are (1) the letter of transmittal, (2) the title page, (3) the table of contents, (4) the table of illustrations, tables, charts, and graphs, (5) the abstract, (6) the introduction, (7) the body of the report, (8) the list of conclusions, (9) the list of recommendations, (10) the appendices, (11) the list of references, and (12) the index. Because of the importance of the abstract, both as a separate form and as a part of the report, procedures for writing descriptive and informative abstracts of this chapter of the book are presented.
In the next chapter, in the section on reference books, you will find descriptions of some of the collections of abstracts in the sciences and the humanities. You should consult some of these for further examples of abstracts--an increasingly important form of writing in the modern world.
Included you will see a descriptive abstract and an informative abstract of this chapter of the book.
The major forms of literature produced in England in each of the three consecutive centuries are discussed in this article.
In England, drama was the prevailing form of literature in the seventeenth century; the prose essay was the chief contribution of the eighteenth century; and the novel was the dominant form in the nineteenth century.
Although you will find descriptive abstracts in some reports, you are more likely to find--especially in lengthy reports--informative abstracts, because the reader wants to get a preview of the main ideas presented in the report rather than merely an indication of the areas covered. As you will discover for yourself, the informative abstract is much harder to write than the descriptive abstract.
In preparing to write an abstract, either of a text you wrote or of a text someone else wrote, you might find these suggestions helpful: