Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Descriptive Abstracts


A descriptive abstract—a summary of someone else’s paper or book—is often required by professors to give you practice in summarizing and responding to sources. Writing a descriptive abstract can be especially trying if you feel as though you are reading material over your head; however, if you understand the goals of a descriptive abstract correctly you can read and write in such a way that the author’s ideas are simplified while being represented fairly.

Style for Descriptive Abstracts

In many courses, a professor will set forth specific guidelines for both form and content of a descriptive abstract. In the absence of such guidelines or to supplement them, follow this advice:

  • Include a title and the word "Abstract" as a heading. Include basic bibliographic information about the source after the title (author’s name, title of work, etc.).
  • Frequently, a list of key words that will be used appears just underneath the title of the abstract. Consider listing your key words in this way.
  • Many professors will expect you to limit a descriptive abstract to a single page, so be certain to write with efficiency in mind—no filler.
  • Begin the abstract by providing some condensed background information and a statement of overview or purpose, much like the kind of material an author provides in an introduction and a thesis statement.
  • Decide on topics by selecting key information from your source. Use the chapter headings, section headings, conclusions, topic sentences, and key terms from your source to determine the topics.
  • Point out relationships among topics, especially via transition words.
  • Consider working from an outline to organize and write the abstract.
  • Use paragraphing generously to discuss different facets of the topic; do not fear short paragraphs.
  • Consider techniques such as enumeration or bulleting of key points for emphasis. However, unless the document becomes very long, you typically do not use section headings in an abstract.
  • Use present tense verbs generously, both to describe ideas or events and to present the author’s goals.
  • Use the author’s name or the names of other key authors, especially those who represent particular theories, directly in the text. However, you typically do not cite sources in the abstract itself; the reader understands that all of the ideas in a descriptive abstract come from a particular source unless you note otherwise.
  • Do not skimp on the conclusion; assert the source’s "bottom line" information, even if that means repeating some of the author’s words.
  • Some professors will expect you or allow you to close the descriptive abstract with your own views on the subject or on the author’s treatment of the subject. Explore this option as concretely you can.
  • Do not use the abstract as a vehicle of apology for ideas you do not understand; stick to those key ideas that you can represent well.