Allison Hosier is an Information Literacy Librarian at the University at Albany, SUNY. She has published and presented on research related to practical applications of the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy as part of information literacy instruction. Her current research is focused on exploring the metaconcept that research is both an activity and a subject of study. Follow her on Twitter at @ahosier.
In 2012, I attended a series of workshops for new faculty on how to write your first peer-reviewed article, step-by-step. These workshops were loosely based on Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks by Wendy Laura Belcher.
Our first assignment? Write the abstract for our article.
This advice was shocking to me and the other new scholars in the room at the time. Write the abstract first? Wasn’t that the part that was supposed to come last? How do you write the abstract if you don’t even know yet what your article is going to be about?
I have since come to regard this as the most useful piece of writing advice I have ever received. So much so that I constantly try to spread the word to other scholars that I meet, both new and experienced. However, whenever I share this piece of wisdom, I find that I am generally regarded with polite skepticism, especially by those who strongly feel that your introduction (much less your abstract) is best written at the end of the process rather than at the beginning. This is fair. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. But I want to share why I think starting with the abstract is useful.
Structuring Your Abstract
“For me, starting with the abstract at the very beginning has the added bonus of helping me establish early on exactly what question I’m trying to answer and why it’s worth answering.”
For every piece of scholarly or professional writing I have ever written (including this one!), I started by writing the abstract. In doing so, I follow a format suggested by Philip Koopman of Carnegie Mellon University, which I happened upon through a Google search. His recommendation is that an abstract should include five parts, paraphrased below:
- The motivation: Why is this research important?
- The problem statement: What problem are you trying to solve?
- Approach: How did you go about solving the problem?
- Results: What was the main takeaway?
- Conclusions: What are the implications?
To be clear, when I say that I write the abstract at the beginning of the writing process, I mean the very beginning. Generally, it’s the first thing I do after I have an idea I think might be worth pursuing, even before I try to do a literature review. This differs from Belcher’s recommendation, which is to write the abstract as the first step of a revision rather than the first step of the writing process but I think the benefits that Belcher identifies (an opportunity to clarify and distill your ideas) are the same in either case. For me, starting with the abstract at the very beginning has the added bonus of helping me establish early on exactly what question I’m trying to answer and why it’s worth answering. I also find it useful to start thinking about what my approach will be, at least in general terms, before I start so I have a sense of how I’m going to go about answering my big question.
So now you’re probably wondering: if this part comes at the very beginning of the writing process, how can you write about the results and conclusions? You can’t know what those will be until you’ve actually done the research.
“…writing the abstract first commits you to nothing. It’s just a way to organize and clarify your thinking.”
It’s true that your results and the conclusions you draw from them will not actually be known until you have some real data to work with. But remember that research should involve some sort of hypothesis or prediction. Stating what you think the results will be early on is a way of forming your hypothesis. Thinking about what the implications will be if your hypothesis is proven helps you think about why your work will matter.
But what if you’re wrong? What if the results are completely different? What if other aspects of your research change as you go along? What if you want to change focus or change your approach?
You can do all of those things. In fact, I have done all of those things, even after writing the abstract first. Because writing the abstract first commits you to nothing. It’s just a way to organize and clarify your thinking.
Here is an early draft of the abstract for “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study: A Proposed Metaconcept and Its Practical Application,” an article I wrote that was recently accepted by College & Research Libraries:
Motivation: As librarians, the transferability of information literacy across one’s academic, professional, and personal life is easy to grasp but students often fail to see how the skills and concepts they learn as part of an information literacy lesson or course might apply to anything other than the immediate research assignment.
Problem: A reason for this may be that information literacy librarians focus on teaching research as a process, an approach that was well-supported by the Standards. Further, the process librarians teach is one associated primarily with only one genre of research—the college research essay. The Framework allows more flexibility but librarians may not yet be using it. Approach: Librarians might benefit from teaching research not only as an activity, but as a subject of study, as is done with writing in composition courses where students first study a genre of writing and its rhetorical context before attempting to write themselves.
Results: Having students study different types of research will help make them aware of the many forms research might take and could improve transferability of information literacy skills and concepts.
Conclusions: Finding ways to portray research as not only an activity but also as a subject of study is more in line with the new Framework.
This is probably the first time I’ve looked at this since I originally wrote it. It’s a little messy and while I recognize the article I eventually wrote in the information here, my focus did shift significantly as I worked and began to receive feedback, first from colleagues and mentors, then from peer reviewers and editors.
For comparison, here is the abstract that appears in the preprint of the article, which is scheduled to be published in January 2019:
Information literacy instruction based on the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education tends to focus on basic research skills. However, research is not just a skill but also a subject of study. The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education opens the door to integrating the study of research into information literacy instruction via its acknowledgement of the contextual nature of research. This article introduces the metaconcept that research is both an activity and a subject of study. The application of this metaconcept in core LIS literature is discussed and a model for incorporating the study of research into information literacy instruction is suggested.
So obviously the published abstract is a lot shorter because it needed to fit within C&RL’s guidelines. It also doesn’t follow the recommended format exactly but it does reflect an evolution in thinking that happened as part of the writing and revision process. The article I ended up with was not the article I started with. That’s okay.
Then why is writing the abstract first useful if you’re just going to throw it out later? Because it focuses your research and writing from the very start. When I first came up with the idea for my article, I only knew that in reading Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, I had found significant parallels between their work and information literacy. I wanted to write about it but I only had a vague sense of what I wanted to say. Writing the abstract first forced me to articulate my ideas in a way that made clear not only why this topic was of interest to me but how it could be significant to the profession as a whole.
Still feeling skeptical? Try it. You don’t have to be at the very beginning of a project to benefit from this exercise. Even if you’ve already started to draft a piece that you’re working on, take a few minutes to write an abstract that names the problem you’re trying to solve, describes your approach to solving it, what your results are (or what you expect them to be) and why they matter. Don’t worry if it’s not good—you’re probably going to change it later anyway. I promise that no matter what you come up with, it will be illuminating.
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