On writing abstracts

One of the illuminating insights I came across during the summer break was in relation to abstracts. Now abstracts are common in the professional journal literature as a summary of the full text article, a skill in itself with definite requirements. Abstracts are also written to collate information about articles in particular subjects for subscription-based (often online) bibliographic services. Examples include Australian Family and Society Abstracts, EconLit, and Vista Management Digest. Writing abstracts for online databases also have special requirements and guidlelines.

Funnily enough, a key task in my first real full-time job involved writing abstracts for a monthly subscription-based publication called The Ideas Centre Bulletin. I would select an array of relevant magazines, news, and journal articles and then write abstracts for each article. I would then organise the abstracts into the publication format and send off the completed publication to the printers for publication.

In the intervening time I have still written abstracts for various purposes although I may not have called them abstracting services. In particular, various current awareness services have included abstracts and content pages. There have been abstracts of published material (like books and articles) for senior managers and corporate executives without the time to read the full text items. There have been abstracts of proposed (and published) conference papers and journal articles. There have been summaries for internal corporate newsletters. There have been abstracts written for federal government parliamentarians to compliment written research. And blogs – are they a new forum in which abstracting meaning from a range of sources can be disseminated?

So what was the illuminating insight that came to me of late? It was simply a game I have been playing with my young daughter before bedtime. The usual bedtime scenario is to read a book and this progressed to finishing with a story that I have to make up on the spot. If there wasn’t enough time for a make-up story, then we would play a game in which we had to tell a story in only three to five sentences, often taking our cue from the previous story just read. The outcome of this latter exercise has in fact been what we could call “an abstract”. The three to five sentences encapsulates the essence of what could have been a much longer story into something more concise and with the meaning intact.

While abstracts are an important communication technique, my preference is still to link the abstract to the original source whenever possible (a hypertext link to the full text is excellent if available). It is important to remember that an abstract is an important communication tool but not necessarily the final say on what the full text is about.


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