The abstract is much more than a summary
It seems logical that, because the abstract is a summary of what’s written, then there is nothing to summarise until the paper has been written. To me, this represents a key misunderstanding of what the abstract is. The abstract is much more than just a summary. For a start, the abstract is the very first thing that most readers will read about the work. It therefore sets the foundations of the perspective or image that the reader will form about the paper, which will shape how they interpret the rest of the paper. For example, an abstract that starts with ‘Predation is a key factor shaping population growth rates’ gives the reader some idea about the topic, scope, and field that the work is centred on. Readers will often rapidly form an opinion (consciously or not) about the work, before having read anything else. Just like topic sentences set the tone for a paragraph, the abstract sets the tone for a manuscript.
Writing the abstract early means that it can serve as a reference point when working through the manuscript. When working on a manuscript, I always re-read the abstract each time I open the document to continue working on it. This helps me to make sure that I’m keeping the right set of ideas in my mind as I write. I’ll also often revisit the abstract when moving to a new paragraph to make sure that I’m maintaining consistent transitions between concepts. In other words, rather than the abstract being the summary of the paper, one can write the paper as the elaboration of the abstract.
Writing the abstract first makes the manuscript sharper
I discovered that writing the abstract first is a good strategy largely by accident—when I had to do a complete re-write (technically a re-re-write) of a manuscript. My manuscript lacked coherence, had a lot of what I can only describe as ‘waffling’ (i.e. a lot of writing without giving any useful or directed information), and suffered from inconsistent use of terminology. Despite the manuscript’s flaws, I was quite happy with my abstract, so I broke it down into individual sentences and made sure that everything I had in the manuscript spoke to at least one of these sentences. This meant that I had to axe a lot of unnecessary text (yes, it’s hard to be ruthless, but satisfying in the long run) and make sure that all the important sentences in the abstract were well backed up in the main text. The result was a sharper, more concise, and much better constructed manuscript.
The same process holds true when initially drafting a manuscript. I’ve often found myself floundering with what to write next and losing vision of where I’m going. In these cases, I find it very useful to turn to the abstract for inspiration and to help regain clarity. If you can’t link what you’re writing to something concrete about the study (which should be reflected in the abstract), then perhaps you’re on your way to a tangent and at risk of introducing the dreaded waffle.
Bring your definitions to the abstract
When writing the abstract initially, don’t stress about how long or short it is, or how brilliantly clever the wording is. Focus on the contribution that each sentence makes to ensure that the key messages are being clearly presented. A big part of bringing clarity to a manuscript is consistent use of terminology and wording. We have a tendency to think that using the same words and phrasing is boring and makes for tedious writing. (For many of us, this is what we’re taught in school). However, it is only once one comes across text that’s been written with liberal use of a thesaurus, that we realise just how confusing things can become without clear terminology, and the importance of precision in scientific writing. When drafting the initial abstract, think carefully about what terms will be used, choose one term for each concept, and then stick to it. Then, constantly refer back to the abstract as the definitive choice of wording. Having the abstract there is also really helpful with maintaining consistency in the terminology.
Abstracts provide a constant checkpoint on logic
There is an additional (and I think much more fundamental) reason for writing the abstract first. Drafting a manuscript can often take weeks (in the best of cases), months (usually), or even years (sigh). During this time, we often gain new perspectives, or change our ideas, about the topic we are writing about. Writing the abstract first (and keeping a history of abstracts as they get updated) is the best way of tracking how these ideas change and develop. The same is true in terms of keeping track of how talks (see the previous post in this series) develop and become more refined. This process of reflection is quite useful for tracking our own development as scientists and seeing how our ideas progress.
Tracking how the abstract changes also has much a more important role to play when drafting a given manuscript. Revisiting the abstract as we write closes the feedback loop between our current writing (and ideas) and our previous writing (and ideas). Critically, it can reveal important information about how our perspective has changed over the course of the writing, which is likely to impact the readability of the text. Differences between the abstract as it was initially written and how you would currently write it represent an important flag that you might need to revisit the manuscript to check that ideas aren’t disjointed. It isn’t uncommon to read manuscripts (even published papers) that contain different perspectives across different sections as the authors’ ideas have shifted over the writing period.
Writing the abstract first is not a waste of time
“But I’ll just have to rewrite it again at the end anyways!” Yes, you will certainly have to re-write the abstract before submitting to a journal. But this would likely be the case anyways. Most manuscripts are rejected from the first journal, and different journals have different requirements (e.g. the number of words allowed, which ranges from 120 to over 350). Re-writing abstracts is normal, and done quite often. If that takes an hour at the end of the manuscript that’s fine, as it has probably saved many hours in between (during the writing process) by helping keep focus and thereby reducing the amount of time needed for editing. In other words, writing the abstract first is more likely to save time rather than be a waste of time. Worst comes to worst, considering that the abstract is the first thing that reviewers will read, while many readers might only ever read the abstract, rewriting it a few times is probably a good thing anyways as it will get better with every rewrite. In reality, you should be prepared to write and re-write your manuscript several times over. Writing to re-write will be the topic of the next post.