The Power of an Abstract

confusion

In my day job, I edit a scholarly journal. Potential authors submit an article for consideration. I read it, and it is also anonymously reviewed by members of my editorial board. Then I write back to the author with a recommendation for or against publication, along with comments about the article and specific suggestions for revision.

Along with every submission, I ask an author to write and submit to me a two- to four-sentence abstract. A thesis statement, in essence, of their article.

Today I want to briefly discuss why having an abstract can be helpful to both your editor and you!

The concept of an abstract works best when used for a nonfiction work. For fiction, instead of an abstract you will likely create a plot outline. Both serve the same purpose: to either solidify your structure and the points you intend to make in your writing OR show where what you thought you were saying doesn’t line up with what you are actually saying.

I often find that the abstract serves the function of the latter more often than it does that of the former. This is where we really see the power in the abstract, because it points out a weakness in the book that even the most argumentative author can’t argue with.

After I read an article or a book, I like to be able to reference the author’s abstract in my notes. Let’s say Author A wrote a book about Topic X. But then I take a look at his abstract and see that he really wanted to talk about Topic Y. When I make my edits, I can reference the abstract and say something like, “You wrote in your abstract that this article/book was about Y. But really what you wrote about is X.”

This is, in my experience, one of the best ways to show an author where they need revision, and it’s one of the best ways for an author to see that they need revision.

The reason I limit the abstract to no more than four sentences is so an author has to sit down and clearly and concisely write out their book or article summary. Think about it like your elevator pitch: you only have 15 seconds to sell your story to someone on an elevator. What are you going to tell them?

Now consider what would happen if you told them one thing, and then they read your book only to find it was about something else! That would not be good. This is why writing an abstract can be a huge benefit to your writing so you can make sure that what you want to say lines up with what you actually say.

So, what I’m suggesting to all the editors out there is to try having authors writing abstracts when they submit their work.
And to all the writers: try writing an abstract. Even if you don’t show it to an editor, you can use it to help you in your own writing to make sure that what you intend to get across is actually coming across.

Have you ever written an abstract before? Do you think this writing tool could be helpful?
Have you ever had an experience where what you wanted to write was different from what you actually wrote?

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One thought on “The Power of an Abstract

  1. I’ve sometimes given a brief synopsis of my story to people, yes. In some cases, it might not be concise enough, though. One of my stories has expanded since my last plot summary, so the summary only describes Part One.

    As to whether my story has ever gone in a direction other than what I had planned…
    Well, sometimes characters end up taking a larger role than I intended. I have a character who leaves during Part One, but he and the main character send letters to one another, so I’m still exploring his life and his personality traits. And now I plan to drag him into other stories.
    At one point, I wanted a minor character for one scene. June waltzed in, threw an elaborate backstory and personality down in front of me, and made it impossible for me to just walk away from her. So I’ll have to reintroduce her into the story at some point, in order to explore her past and how her mind works.
    I’ve also planned for a scene to go one way. Then Character A says one thing, Character B responds one way, and before I know it, they’re following a totally different path. For example, I try to make my characters get along with each other or accomplish a task. However, their attention travels elsewhere, they get into an argument, etc.

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