I’ve written before about how to write an abstract for something you haven’t written yet and how to write an abstract for a finished piece. Both of these situations are usually responding to some external need: a call for papers, or a requirement of the journal or book publisher.
In those other two posts I used the analogy of making maple syrup. It takes approximately 30 gallons of sap to get 1 gallon of maple syrup. And raw sap isn’t very sweet at all. Your abstract is concentrated in the same way.
Sometimes it’s worth writing an abstract that you aren’t going to share.
The writing process is messy
In the middle of a writing project you can sometimes get lost in all the detail. You are reading lots of interesting things. You have a lot of interesting data. You start writing about one thing and get new ideas so you go off on tangents. Sooner or later, you have a kind of overgrown garden of a piece and you wonder what you are even trying to do.
This is okay. Trying to avoid getting into that kind of mess is almost guaranteed to lead to writer’s block so you have to go there. And all those interesting tangents won’t be wasted. Writing is, after all, a cognitive process through which you figure out what you want to say.
But it’s still pretty frustrating to be in that messy spot.
This is a good point to try to write an abstract.
This won’t be easy either, but the discipline involved in writing an abstract at this point will give you a clear vision for your revisions. RESIST the temptation to cut and paste from your existing document. Write NEW words in a clean document. Do not refer to what you’ve already written as you write. You need the distance to see the big picture.
Now that you’ve written all that and have a deeper understanding of the topic and the directions it could go, what do you want to say?
If you are really struggling with the abstract, imagine you are talking to me or a friend about your project. We’re interested. We want to help. But you don’t want to waste our time so you are trying to give us a quick sense of the thing.
What words do you make sure to use?
Write them down.
Use this list of keywords to write your abstract.
You have an abstract, now what?
Once you have your abstract, you will probably already feel better. You at least know where you are trying to go.
You might want to create an outline next, mapping out how you are going to get there. With an abstract and an outline in hand, you can wade through the words you’ve already written and corral them into the structure, identify places that need new words, and so on.
Or you can write a fresh draft to the outline, referring back to your first draft as needed. If you are finding that going back to what you’ve already written just makes you confused, try this. It may seem inefficient but that earlier writing was a necessary step to getting where you are now, even if you don’t cut and paste those words into your new sections.
Not everything will fit
One thing you will discover when you do this is that there are things you’ve written that do not belong in this article. Do not try to squeeze them in. You will write more than one thing based on this research. This article/chapter/whatever needs a clear focus. And yes, even if you are writing a book, not everything belongs in there.
Create folders for the things you will cut from this project but might use in future. This is where a program like Scrivener really comes into it’s own because you can do that inside the project. If you decide later that some of that really does belong you know where to find it.
What if your argument has shifted?
If you wrote an abstract or a synopsis before you started writing, your new abstract may not look the same.
There is nothing wrong with you. The process of doing the writing and research has shifted your argument. That’s okay.
If you have a commitment to a publisher or conference organizer, talk to them about the changes. There is a very good chance they will be fine with the new version. And if they aren’t you get to make a decision about what to do next.