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Section 3.3.2


An abstract is a brief summarizing statement, usually between 75 and 150 words long. It gives the reader a synopsis of the problem, method, results, and conclusions of your document. The abstract takes the form of a paragraph, usually with 5-10 sentences. It appears at the top of a journal article, just under the title, or on the page following the title page of a report. In the latter instance, the abstract appears on a page by itself.

Abstracts are often collected into volumes and must be able to stand alone. They are read by parties who are trying to decide whether or not to read the main document. Sometimes they are read by people who want to get the big picture before reading the main document. Abstracts can save readers an immense amount of time.

An abstract includes these elements:

  1. Problem. Note the key topic or problem of your document.
  2. Method. State your main approach to solving the problem.
  3. Results. Provide one or two important results.
  4. Conclusion. Note your main conclusion.

Descriptive Abstracts

In descriptive abstracts, which are often written before a project is completed, the emphasis is placed on the problem and method. Such abstracts may be required for conference paper proposals or for progress reports.

Title: Machine-Intelligent Gust Front Detection

Doppler weather radar imagery [method] is being used to detect gust fronts [problem] as part of a program at Lincoln Laboratory to anticipate hazardous weather conditions [problem]. The project goal, under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration, is to develop a Machine-Intelligent Gust Front Algorithm (MIGFA) [method] as part of a suite of hazardous-weather detection functions.

M. W. Merritt et al., "Wind-Sheer Detection with Pencil Beam Radars," Lincoln Laboratory Journal

Compare this with the example of the informative abstract following.

Informative Abstracts

In informative abstracts, which are written after the project has been completed, care is given to providing information on the results and conclusion of the project.

Title: Machine-Intelligent Gust Front Detection

Techniques of low-level machine intelligence, originally developed at Lincoln Laboratory to recognize ground vehicles obscured by camouflage and foliage, are being used to detect gust fronts in Doppler weather radar imagery [method and problem]. A Machine-Intelligent Gust Front Algorithm (MIGFA) has been developed [result] as part of a suite of hazardous-weather detection functions being prepared under contract with the Federal Aviation Administration. Initially developed for use with the latest generation Airport Surveillance Radar equipped with a wind shear processor (ASR-9 WSP), MIGFA was deployed for operational testing in Orlando, Florida during the summer of 1992. MIGFA has demonstrated levels of detection performance that have not only markedly exceeded the capabilities of existing gust front algorithms, but are also competing well with human interpreters [result and conclusion].

--M. W. Merritt et al., "Wind-Sheer Detection with Pencil Beam Radars," Lincoln Laboratory Journal

Executive Summaries

Executive summaries may be written to summarize the key questions and findings of documents, mainly reports. They are directed to readers--generally managerial--who will not read further. An executive summary, unlike an abstract, is a document in miniature that may be read in place of the longer document. Executive summaries are placed immediately after the title page of a report. They typically range between 10 and 25 percent of the original document.

Structure and Content

The structure of executive summaries is similar to that of abstracts Problem




About 25 percent of the executive summary is devoted to the problem and method, and the remaining 75 percent is given to the results and recommendations.


Presentation of executive summaries is especially important, since speed and the convenience of the reader are the main objects. The material should be organized into enumerated chunks, given descriptive headings,and highlighted. These special formatting characteristics are shown in the following example.

  1. Preventive maintenance at the XYZ plant. The preventive maintenance program at the XYZ plant was rudimentary--still in the early stages of development. Neither its scope nor its procedures had been defined. Accordingly, several plant activities, including systems maintenance, testing, calibration, and operations were routinely carried out with inadequate or no procedures. The instrument calibration program was incomplete and inconsistent, with the exception of the equipment under the control of the Equipment Test and Inspection Group.
  2. Maintenance backlog and funding. The maintenance backlog continued to increase, while there was a decrease . . . 

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