Writing Public Health Abstracts

An abstract is a short summary of a larger work, such as a journal article, research paper, presentation, or poster. Articles in academic journals always start with an abstract and applications to present your work at an academic conference usually entail submitting a 100-300 word description of the project you want to showcase.

The best abstracts engage the reader’s interest, offering spoonfuls of vital information about the core components of your study. What was your objective? Who was your focus population? What did you do? How did you do it?  What did you find? Why is the work useful? Your language should be clear, descriptive, and engaging. Your sentences should be concise.

A well-written abstract offers an intriguing snapshot of your whole project. It’s the thing that will make a reader who is scanning 100 abstracts on PubMed decide to click to the full text. Every word of your abstract should matter. Technical jargon should be minimal, as should abbreviations.

Your abstract stands alone, but beckons readers. If someone only reads your abstract, never sees the full article or report, they should still be able to answer all the questions listed above. But it also calls the reader to fulfill their desire to know more by downloading the PDF of your article, inviting you to present at the conference.

Because your abstract is an overview of your entire document, it may be the last thing you write. But waiting until you are done with the paper can be a mistake because, by that time, you may be short on time or energy and tempted to simply cut and paste.

I have certainly been guilty of remembering the abstract at the last minute, copying key sentences from each section, doing a bit of editing to stay within the word count, and leaving it at that. The result has always been a chunk of disjointed, jargony prose, somewhat informative and minimally engaging. Many of the abstracts on PubMed read like they were written this way. But a copy-and-paste abstract isn’t doing justice to your hard work.

Here are some things you can do to avoid writing your abstract in exhaustion, when you feel like you’ve expended all you have to say. First, and most obvious, don’t wait until the end of the writing process. At the top of your document or in a separate document that you keep open while writing your primary text, type the word abstract in boldface. Below that type headers for the information you know you need to include in the abstract. Then make notes as you go. Even typing two or three words or pasting some key numbers from your results section as you write it can help. Keep adding to it and refining your prose as you go. What you want to avoid is a blank space, a looming deadline, and the sense that you have nothing left to write.

You can also reverse the process and write your abstract before you start writing your manuscript. Doing so may help you figure out exactly what the focus and main message of your document will be. If you intend to present early results from your research at a conference, then you may write the abstract first.


The instructions for writing an abstract vary depending on the conference or journal. It is critical to stay within the prescribed word limit. If you exceed the word limit, your abstract may be not be reviewed, your article may be rejected by a busy editor who doesn’t have time to read manuscripts that don’t adhere to the journal’s published guidelines for authors.

An abstract usually has the following sections. Conference and journal guidelines will tell you the word limit and what format to use. Some will ask you to break the information into sections (as seen below), others will ask you to put the information together in a single paragraph.

  • Background / Objective: What is public health problem you are addressing? What is its scope? What is the purpose of your article / presentation?
  • Methods: What was your study design? How did you collect data? How did you analyze your data?
  • Results: What did you find that is most relevant to the objective stated above?
  • Discussion / Implications / Recommendations: What is the significance of your research? What are the implications for addressing the public health challenge? What next steps do you recommend?

Useful Resources

Suhasini Nagda. 2013. How to Write Scientific Abstracts. Journal of Indian Prosthdontic Society. 13(3): 382-383

Karen McKee. 2022. How to Write a Scientific Abstract for Your Research Article. Wiley Network. Accessed April 13, 2022.

Purdue Owl. Writing Scientific Abstracts. Accessed April 13, 2022

Author: Jennifer Beard

Director of the Public Health Writing Program

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