How to get your written message over faster with an abstract

This will make you smile … we’re going to take a business writing lesson from the academic world … the abstract (noun: a short summary of a text, scientific article, document, speech, etc.), and how its concept can be adapted to help your readers get to the point ASAP. 

Writing an abstract on How To Write Better

Unlike in the art world, an “abstract” in writing terms means a summary that can work better for business writing than the “executive summary” people in business tend to use. Here’s why…

As you may know my “other job” (unpaid) is connected with cancer survivorship and that means I read a lot of medical papers and other formal, official documents.

Also, when my son was at university, I found myself editing and proof-reading his submissions on econometrics and other unfathomable topics, usually through half the night as he’d send them at dinner time and had a 09:00 deadline the next day. (That’s what Moms are for, right?)

In both cases, what saves my bacon is the abstract that precedes all the main text, computations and various hieroglyphics I can only hope to understand.

No matter how technical and jargon-infested the main body of text, the abstract nearly always tells it how it is in relatively plain English. It’s a great help to busy students, health professionals, professors and even ignorant nitwits like me.

How a written abstract can get a lot of the right information over quickly

Here’s a good example of a medical paper abstract, published on the US website Uro Today … 

Bladder cancer is the 8th most common cancer with 74,000 new cases in the United States in 2015. Non-muscle invasive bladder cancer (NMIBC) accounts for 75% of all bladder cancer cases. Transurethral resection and intravesical treatments remain the main treatment modality. Up to 31-78% of cases recur, hence the need for intensive treatment and surveillance protocols which makes bladder cancer one of the most expensive cancers to manage. The purpose of this review is to compare contemporary guidelines from Europe, (European Association of Urology), the United States (National Comprehensive Cancer Network), the United Kingdom (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), Japan (Japanese Urological Association) and the International Consultation on Bladder Cancer (ICUD). We compare and contrast the different guidelines and the evidence on which their recommendations are based.

Needless to say the final paper will lead to many thousands of words, most of which will be very technical in nature. However despite this, the authors have managed to capture the key points of the study and its desired outcomes in relatively few words. You may not understand all the jargon but I do, simply as an informed patient and survivorship worker. That means most key readers will “get it,”quickly.

Just for the record, what are the main objectives of an abstract?

It’s really simple; much like a commercial “executive summary” as you’ll see in business documents, the academic abstract summarises the key points of the text that follows.

Where there is a difference, though – at least in my own experience – is that whereas executive summaries focus almost entirely on the outcomes of a project, study or report from the point of view of the writer or instigator, abstracts are marketing-neutral. 

Normally they start by identifying the problem to be researched and why it’s important. Then, they indicate their findings and possible solutions.

When a document, article, white paper or whatever is not a blatant sales pitch and therefore devoted to trumpeting “what’s in it for you,” starting with an abstract format paragraph forms a more balanced basis from which readers can get the drift not only of what we found out, but why we examined the topic in the first place.

Obviously, abstracts are hardly appropriate in shorter, snappier business communication where we have to get right down to the basics in XXX characters or less. But there are times when I reckon the abstract format would be very useful in business communication.

How writing an abstract can help you in your business communications: my suggestions

Blog posts – especially long ones of the tutorial kind. Particularly as “long form” blog posts are fashionable these days, I reckon many would benefit from an abstract right at the start to help readers get the right focus. (Worried about their missing the “call to action” at the end? Place it earlier in your article/post. Near the top. No problem!)

White papers – these are an obvious one. Although they don’t seem to be as fashionable as previously they are still around and still work.

Web pages – yes, really. OK, web pages with a concise amount of words to share needn’t worry. But pages where there is a lot of text … a lot of information … really can benefit from a summary that will help readers absorb your more detailed stuff in the right frame of mind.

Online courses and tutorials. If you work through a lot of online courses, as I do, you’ll know that it really helps if you have an abstract before each chapter or section that shares not only a) how you will benefit from learning it, but also b) why we know that you need to do this. This is another example of why the abstract, with its valuable partnership with the “what’s in it for me” criterion common with executive summaries, is a good model to use.

Promotions for online courses. Time and time again you see these courses advertised and it’s all about “what’s in it for you,” which is great and is something I promote avidly. But using the abstract format whereby you tell people why the course has been developed – due to a lack of knowledges in area A or B and how that impacts adversely on whatever – can be a powerful pre-cursor to the “what’s in it for you.”

How do you feel about abstracts and their place in the commercial (not just academic) written world?

Please share your views.

And if you’d like some help with your writing on a number of different levels, you might find this page useful…

Questions? Get in touch with Suze on