Tom has shared about his process for putting together an abstract either for a conference paper for submission or for a journal article. This article is a little bit of an insight into his abstract-writing process which you will likely be able to build upon and expand and mould for your own purposes. As usual it will be mostly useful for those in the humanities as that’s where his research sits, however, he is sure the fundamental ideas will be useful across disciplines, potentially even into the sciences. With that out the way, however, let’s crack on with it.
So, without wanting to patronize in any way, it seems that the first question is: What is an abstract for? and What purpose does it serve? Within academia, there are two main functions of an abstract.
For academic conferences, abstracts are used as part of a kind of application process. You send an abstract to a conference organiser and they use that as a way of deciding whether your research fits in with that conference and whether to invite you or not. And, if they do decide to invite you, they’ll use that abstract in order to decide where to place you within the conference program.
In terms of journals, sometimes abstracts used in a similar way. It is often found around themed issues where editors are inviting submissions around a particular topic. However, for the most part, journals will expect you to submit a full draft of your article on spec. In this context, then, the abstract serves as a kind of window into your article so that if and when it is published potential readers can browse that abstract before deciding
whether or not to read your full article. This use of an abstract is sometimes a little bit overlooked. Often, we prioritize the notion of getting published as being the key goal but actually, beyond this, as well as just to getting published you want your work to be read. So, in both these contexts, though it might seem slightly different, the abstract actually serves a very similar purpose and is very important, as it’s these few hundred words that are likely going to decide whether you get to present to that conference or not or whether your article gets actual eyes upon it or not. But, with such a limited word count, what should we leave in and what should we leave out?
Phillip Koopman suggests that an abstract should have five core elements. Your motivation for writing the article or paper. Your problem statement; what are you trying to discover or argue? Your approach; in the humanities this would often be the theoretical tools that you’ll be building your argument upon. Your results; again, the spoilers. What are your conclusions? And, finally, what Koopman refers to as conclusions; why should we care about any of this and what are the implications of those conclusions that you’ve come to?
While such an approach might seem a little formulaic, Tom actually really likes this break down of what an abstract should include. He thinks that, by using one or two sentences to answer each of those questions, you can ensure your abstract is balanced, giving a good, balanced overview of the entire argument contained in the article or presentation and therefore giving the reader of it the information they need to make their choice on whether to read or accept that abstract.
Tom likes examples. He often thinks that talking about something entirely theoretically can be just as confusing as not talking about it at all and so what he thought he’d do was, by way of an example, try to put together an
abstract for a video he recently released as part of my Politix series on Bojack Horseman. We’re going to take these ideas by Koopman and see how we can take the video on Bojack Horseman and sum it down into an abstract.
So, here is his abstract for How Bojack Horseman Critiques the 1990s. Step one, then, is motivation. And my motivation for creating this video was fairly clear: TV show is popular, therefore TV show is notable, therefore discussing that TV show is a worthwhile act. In his abstract, then, he might state that “Bojack Horseman is an incredibly popular TV show and has been widely praised for its engagement with contemporary celebrity culture.
Here, as well as just claiming that the TV show is popular, and therefore important to discuss in that way, he’s also hinted at the fact that there has been previous discussion about this TV show, and therefore that perhaps lends weight to my decision to discuss it too. His problem statement, then, was that, while he felt that there have been many conversations surrounding its take on celebrity culture and mental health—and while he thought that those were important and incredibly revealing—he felt less had been said about how on the show engages with how we perceive the past.
There was a gap in the discourse here, then, what in academia we potentially call a “gap in the literature”. His problem statement, then, is that he’s gonna solve this gap in the literature by filling it. So, in his abstract he might write that “while much has been written about the show’s discourses on mental health and contemporary celebrity culture, less has been said about how the show critiques our perceptions of the recent past”.
So, here, we have already a sense of what’s going to be discussed within that video essay. Now we’ll move on to his approach; how he is going to make that discussion and make his eventual argument. Well, within that video essay, he largely draw on ideas from Frederic Jameson’s book in which he delineates between notions of parody and pastiche, and it’s very much those ideas that formulate his argument. And, here, is a place where very clearly that role of summarizing what actually takes place within the video essay itself takes place. Because, within the video itself, he goes to great lengths to introduce Jameson’s ideas, to explain them to the reader in case they’re not familiar with them, and to provide nuance and mould them to his purposes within that video essay.
However, within the abstract, there is no time for that, so you have to grow comfortable with the idea that your abstract is not going to have all those caveats within it. So, for this sentence, he’s gonna simplify and simply say that “In this video essay I draw upon Frederic Jameson’s delineation of pastiche and parody within cultural texts in order to consider the relationship within Bojack Horseman between the cultural attitudes of the 1990s and the present-day and the perception of the former from the point of view of the latter”.
Great, let’s come to results. This is where, if he’s writing in the humanities (as he always is), then he’s gonna say what his argument is with an indication as to how that argument ends. So, here, it’s fairly blunt. He’s gonna say that “I argue that, while Bojack Horseman initially invites us to view the 1990s within the terms of what Jameson refers to as pastiche, as the series continues, it gradually erodes this rose-tinted view of the past in order to critique how we process the recent past”.
Finally, in expressing the importance of this argument and the impact of the video essay, he thinks he’s mainly interested in expressing how his reading of Bojack Horseman potentially elevates it as a notable point of discussion and it’s subversiveness as a cultural text. So, by doing that, he’s kind of implying, by association, that the video essay is kind of important because it is his video essay that draws those ideas out of the text. So, here, he’s going to write that “Through such a manipulation of the audience’s point of view, Bojack Horseman invites the audience to reinterpret their perceptions of previous cultural eras and thus is a far more subversive piece of television than we have perhaps previously given it credit for”.
What we’ve ended up with, then, is a far, far from perfect rough first draft of an abstract that is 191 words long. This gives us a lot of wiggle room. For example, he might decide to add specifically that I talked at length about the character of Hank Hippopopolous and the allusions within Bojack Horseman to crimes committed by Bill Cosby and allegations towards David Letterman.
He would also very likely play with the language a little bit to ensure that it is as articulate and as engaging as possible. While he’d certainly warn against swallowing a thesaurus and making it a really flowery or almost-unintelligible-because-it’s-so-wordy abstract, he thinks that the adjectives and verbs that we choose to express our ideas are really important. He often thinks that using the active voice rather than the passive voice also helps to articulate why it’s important that you’re presenting this piece of work rather than anyone else.
For now, however, he hopes that that serves as a useful example of how I go about writing an abstract. He’s sure that lots of people out there will have lots of ideas to build on these (or argue against what he’s said) and he thinks that’s really important.
As always, this is the start of a conversation not the end of one. Central to his personal approach, he thinks, and one of the reasons that he found that structure so useful is remaining pure to the core function of an abstract and retaining balance throughout, really just explaining to the reader what your work is about. Because, while flowery words and engaging phrasing can really help to lift your abstract off the page, it’s actually those fundamentals which will make it do the job that it’s meant to do.