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10 Steps to a Good Abstract
by Prof. R.J. Twiss

Employers tell us again and again that one of the most important qualities they look for when they hire someone is an ability to write well. The chances are you will spend a major portion of your working life writing reports, proposals, etc.. You will be wasting your company's time and money if you write so badly that what you write must be sent back to you for one or more rewrites, and that will not help your chances for advancement. Take some time now to hone your writing skills. You will not regret it!!Abstracts are attached to some of the research displays around the Department and are part of every paper published in the usual research journals. Read them over: usually they are packed tightly with a lot of information, and there are no spare words. This is the point of an abstract: to convey as much information as possible in a very few words. It's wonderful practice in writing clear, crisp English.Some journals (e.g. Journal of Geophysical Research) do not allow paragraphs in abstracts, others (e.g. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull., Jour. Struc. Geol.) do allow them. For this course you should use paragraphs in your abstracts.

1. Take careful notes as you follow the seminar. Look carefully over the notes you made, and follow in your mind the sequence that the speaker followed in the seminar.

When you begin to write your abstract:

2. Write down the one or two general ideas that describe the focus of the entire talk. This will define your introductory paragraph for the abstract.

3. From your lecture notes, jot down lists of facts, assumptions, hypotheses, etc. that were presented in the talk and that you think important enough to cover in the abstract.

4. Group related items in your list together into separate topics. These topics will define the paragraphs in your abstract. Keep facts or data separate from assumptions and hypotheses and from interpretations.

5. Organize the topics in a logical progression. If the talk was well organized, the speaker's organization can be used; otherwise you may have to reorganize the material. A variety of organizing principles can be imagined, e.g. general to specific information, observations to assumptions to hypotheses to tests, chronologic organization, geographic organization, etc.

6. Write your abstract using each topic in 2 and 5 above as a paragraph. Apply the principles of good writing as set out in G.D. Gopen and J.A. Swan, 1990 (see reading assignment above). Each paragraph should make a single point or be concerned with a single concept. Be clear about the function of the paragraph before you write it. That point or concept should be stated in the first sentence of the paragraph (the topic sentence). Each succeeding sentence should contribute to the single point or concept of that paragraph and should be part of a logically connected development through the paragraph.

7. Read over your abstract: does it make sense? Examine your abstract with the following questions in mind:

Remember, you have to express the important points of the presentation as clearly, succinctly, and logically as you can.

8. Revise and edit your first draft thoroughly. Improve your sentences, clarify your ideas, check for any improper grammar, and check for misspellings (with spell checkers on computers, there is very little excuse for spelling errors).

9. Allow a reliable friend or classmate to read your revised draft (you can probably get a more objective evaluation from someone who has not heard the talk). Does it make sense to another person? Listen carefully to the comments and response of your editor; do not be defensive-he or she is trying to help you. It never hurts to get a second opinion, too.

10. Correct or revise your abstract accordingly and prepare a neat, clean draft to turn in. Proofread and make sure you have no typos or misspellings. Prune out wordy garbage and replace it with clean, straightforward English. Have you expressed all the main ideas in the 250 words you are allowed? If you've missed out something important, you have to make room for it by compressing your words elsewhere.


Ten Principles of Well-Structured Writing
by Prof. R.J. Twiss*
(Plus Three Principles of Style)

  1. Every unit of discourse (whether a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a paper or chapter, a book) no matter what the size, should serve a single function or make a single point.
  2. BASIC PRINCIPAL OF GOOD WRITING: Readers use the structure of a sentence to evaluate what relative emphases should be placed on what information. Thus the writer must construct sentences so that the intended relative emphases coincide with the readers' expectations. (see 3-8 below).
  3. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
  4. Place in the topic position of the sentence or clause (i.e. at or near the beginning) the person or thing whose 'story' a sentence is telling.
  5. Place in the topic position of the sentence or clause appropriate 'old information' (material already introduced in the discourse) for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
  6. Follow the grammatical subject of a sentence or clause as closely as possible with its verb.
  7. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  8. Place in the stress position of the sentence or clause (i.e. at or near the end) the 'new information' you want the reader to emphasize.
  9. Begin each paragraph with one or a couple of topic sentences that state the focus of the paragraph and its relation to preceding material.
  10. Ensure that the sentences in each paragraph follow from one another in a logical sequence. To this end, make the topic position of each sentence back-linking, and the stress position forward progressing.
  11. Information content: Make sure your sentence has something definite to say.
  12. Make sure the structure and grammar of your sentence conveys the meaning you intend.
  13. Prune your prose. Eliminate repetition and verbosity.

* Notes based on G.D. Gopen and J.A. Swan, 1990. The science of scientific writing. American Scientist, 78: 550-558. See also Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. Macmillan

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