Everything You Need to Know to Write an Abstract: A Step-by-Step Guide
Thank you to Élise N. Arsenault Knudsen, PhD, RN, ACNS-BC for this informative article on how to write a nursing abstract.
Conducting improvement work or engaging in research facilitates nurses’ professional growth and advancing nursing knowledge and practice. Therefore, once the projects are complete, it is essential to share those learnings both within and outside our organizations. Professional nursing conferences are an excellent venue for dissemination, as well as networking. If you want to present at a conference, the first step is to respond to the “Call for Abstracts.”
This article provides a step-by-step guide and points to consider helping you prepare, write, and submit an abstract for a professional nursing conference, such as the PCNA’s Cardiovascular Nursing Symposium.
What is an Abstract?
Before describing the steps for abstract writing, let’s define what an abstract is and be clear about the purpose of an abstract.
An abstract is a brief summary and description of your project. “The word ‘abstract’ comes from the Latin abstractum, which means a condensed form of a longer piece of writing”.1 Abstracts have a word count limit, ranging from 150 to 500 words; therefore, abstracts must be concise. The purpose of the abstract is to highlight the main elements of the project, with enough detail to allow the reviewers to determine the relevance and suitability for presentation.2
This article focuses on writing an abstract for a nursing conference; however, it is worth noting that abstracts are used for other purposes, such as accompanying published scholarly journal articles and grant applications.
Step 1: Preparation
Before doing any actual writing, there are a few questions to consider to prepare and focus your thoughts. As you develop a timeline for writing an abstract, build in enough time to complete this important first step. During the preparation phase, consider the following questions.
What story do you want to tell?
As you have worked on this project, you have become an expert; you know the topic area and the details, as well as the time you have invested and the challenges you have overcome. Winnowing all of that concisely into 300 words can feel difficult. However, with some thoughtful reflection, and discussions with team members, you will be able to identify the project’s key aspects to focus on for this conference presentation. Keep in mind that there is always more to the story than what can be shared or described in a single conference presentation, regardless of poster or podium format. Therefore, you will make decisions about how to craft your writing to focus on just two or three key points.
Questions to Guide Your Story Line
You can think about your work like a story and the abstract like its trailer. Your goal is to entice the abstract reviewers, who are naïve to your work, to want to hear more about the wonderful work you have done. Like a movie trailer, an abstract includes the highlights and the results of the work, but it doesn’t include all the complexities of the plot. Before you begin writing your abstract, consider the following questions to clarify your thinking about the aspects of your story to include:3
- Why did you start? What prompted you to start this project? What question did you want to answer? What were the goals of the project? And what aspect of those goals do you want to share at the conference?
- What did you do? What did you do for your project? What method did you use?
- What answer did you get? What did you learn from this project? What were the main answers you discovered? How did those answers get you closer to answering your question or achieving your goal?
- What does it mean? Within the context of health care or nursing, what does this project mean? What are the implications of this work?
How Does Your Story Align With the Conference?
It is typical for a conference to have a theme, purpose, or focus. For example, PCNA’s Cardiovascular Nursing Symposium is focused on highlighting healthcare professionals’ work that includes “innovative projects, original research, or graduate capstones related to cardiovascular risk reduction and disease management”. Each of these submission types is defined on the PCNA webpage; review those descriptions carefully to ensure a match between the category you select for your abstract and the work you conducted.
As you think about that focus, consider the aspects of your work that may be most intriguing for the audience to hear.
Also, consider the stage of your project. Many conferences accept abstracts describing work that is ongoing or in progress if it will be completed to present. Typically, two presentation formats are available at the conference, podium (oral) and poster presentations. Completed projects are more likely to be selected for a podium presentation and an ongoing project is more likely to be selected for a poster presentation
What Are the Requirements for the Submission?
Before you begin writing, review the requirements for the submission. Be clear about the format (including the headings required for the submission), the submission deadline, any themes, submission categories, or tracks for the conference, and ensure you are able to attend the conference if your abstract is accepted.
Review the Selection Criteria
Many conferences’ “Calls for Abstracts” include how abstracts are selected; PCNA lists them under “Grading Criteria.” Review these criteria and ensure to address each of them in your writing.
Develop a Timeline to Ensure an On-time Submission
Plans to start drafting an abstract should begin at least 3 to 4 weeks before the abstract submission deadline to ensure adequate time for writing, revising, proofreading, feedback, final revisions, and submission.
Note Available Resources
PCNA, for example, offers proofreading and feedback on abstracts. If writing an abstract is a new skill you are developing, this is a wonderful resource that may improve your chances of being selected to present. Take advantage of those resources by planning for the review due date in addition to the final abstract submission deadline.
An important part of the preparation phase is to determine who will be included as an author on the abstract and the subsequent presentation. Authors should reflect those who made substantial contributions to the project, writing the abstract and preparing the presentation; not simply those who were involved in the project.4 When projects included team members who were essential to the project but not part of the writing or presentation, it is appropriate to include them in an acknowledgment section in the presentation.
Determine the Order of Authors
Typically, in nursing, the first author is the primary contributor or project lead, and the remaining authors are listed by level of contribution. The final author typically indicates the mentor for the project or the most experienced author. If the contributions were equivalent, listing the authors in alphabetical order is standard.
Step 2: Getting Started with a Nursing Abstract
After thinking through the questions and nuances of the preparation step, review your notes and ideas. Once the main points of the abstract are clear to you, it is time to begin the first draft of your abstract. Consider these two pieces of advice for your first draft:
- Start writing with the required abstract headers. As the first step simply write the headers into your document. This strategy will help to organize your writing, ensure that you are meeting the heading requirements, and prevent you from starting with an intimidating blank page.
- Write the first draft without editing. The first draft is not going to be perfect, and that is to be expected. Rather, the goal of the first draft is simply to write something. While the final abstract has a word limit, that limit should not be the focus of your first draft. It is often easier to edit and delete words after the first draft is complete.
Step 3: Crafting the Abstract
This is the step where the writing begins! As you begin writing, remember to match the content of the abstract with the “Call for Abstracts” requirements. Competitive abstracts clearly articulate the rationale for the presentation and are substantial.5 The following content should be included for each heading for an abstract submission to PCNA:
- While this is often written last, it is the first impression of your work; it should be a concise representation of the project.
- Avoid jargon or abbreviations in the title to ensure clarity.
- The title should be simple, using as few words as possible, while capturing what you are writing about.
- Sometimes it is helpful to include the project design in the title because it anchors the reader in the type of work being presented.
- Consider a title that captures a broad audience and grabs attention without being overdone.1
- This section provides the context for your project and indicates why the project is important. It orients the reader to the work and frames up the rationale for your project within the context of what is already known on the topic.2
- As appropriate, this section refers to literature or published research that is relevant to the project topic. However, citations are not usually included in abstracts (APA format does not require citations for abstracts). Rather, use language that clearly indicates that you are referring to published work (such as Recent research on this topic indicates…).
- The background section is usually 3 to 5 sentences and should clearly guide the reader to the purpose of the project. The purpose statement should be the final sentence of the background section.
- This section describes the process of how the work was completed.
- The content in this section will vary based on the type of work that you did. For example, in a research study, this will include the details of the design, sample, setting, and data analysis. For improvement work, it will include the model used and the work that was completed in each step.
- The methods section should logically flow from the background and the purpose and is typically 2-3 sentences.
- In each project or study, something was “done;” this section includes a brief description of what was conducted during the project or study.
- For example, interventions for an improvement project likely include education for clinicians, workflow changes, and evaluation of the new process; each of those should be described elements in this section across 2-4 sentences.
- Within this header, answer the question: What happened as a result of your work? Include the actual results that match the purpose statement in the background section.
- The results section is often considered the most important part of the abstract. This section may be the longest section and may require other sections to be limited to adequately capture the findings of your project.2
- The results section should be focused on the facts and data about what was learned during the project. For example, after an improvement project was piloted, what rates of adherence were seen for a new workflow? Or what clinician- or patient- outcomes improved?
- This section should answer the question: After completing this project what can be said about the topic? What are the take-home messages? The salient conclusions should directly link to the project you are presenting.2
- This is typically 1-2 sentences that tie together all the previous sections of the abstract.
- This is an opportunity to indicate why this work was important and how this project impacts nursing or health care. Recommendations for next steps are also often included in this section. For example, based on the results of an improvement project, a recommendation for spreading the practice to new areas may be made, or a research study may recommend future studies to discover more.
Step 4: Editing and Proof-reading
Once your initial draft is written, take a break (perhaps an hour or overnight) to allow the words to settle; return to the draft with fresh eyes to begin the editing process.
- Edit to ensure that your writing is clear and concise and without jargon.
- As you re-read, be sure that abbreviations are spelled out the first time they are used.
- Ensure that sentences are short and direct, using an active (rather than passive) voice.
- The abstract should read as a cohesive document, flowing from one section to the next, with the tense maintained throughout.
- Read the abstract aloud to catch poor grammar, missed or duplicative words, and awkward phrasing.5
- Eliminate unnecessary words and ensure the abstract meets the word limit; 300 words are allowed for PCNA’s Cardiovascular Nursing Symposium abstract submission.
- Ask someone else to proofread your abstract, preferably someone who is not familiar with your work. Ask for feedback on the clarity of the abstract and serve as a second pair of eyes for grammatical errors or typos.
Step 5: Submit
After preparing, writing, revising, and editing, and receiving feedback on your nursing abstract, it is time to submit. Consider these final steps:
- Ensure all authors have reviewed and approved the final version.
- Re-read the submission criteria and re-read your abstract confirming all submission criteria are met.
- Follow the steps for submitting your work.
- Submit before the deadline.
Step 6: Celebrate!
Writing and submitting a nursing abstract is worthy of recognition; congratulate yourself and your teammates (as applicable) on a job well done.
Additional Resources for Writing an Abstract
- Tips for Writing an Excellence Conference Abstract – American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
- Writing an Abstract – The Writing Center at George Mason University
- Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper – The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Panton, L. (2016). Writing an abstract. HIV Nursing, 16, 5-6.
- Alspach, J.G. (2017). Writing for publication 101: Why an abstract is so important. American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, 37(4), 12-15.
- Heseltine, E. (2012). Writing an abstract: Window to the world of your work. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 36(3), 204-205.
- International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). (2023). Defining the Role of Authors and Contributors.
- Happell, B. (2007). Hitting the target! A no tears approach to writing an abstract for a conference presentation. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 16, 447-452.