An abstract is a summary of a body of information. Sometimes, abstracts are in fact called summaries—sometimes, executive summaries or executive abstracts. The business and scientific worlds define different types of abstracts according to their needs. If you are taking a technical writing course based on this online textbook, your technical report (depending on your instructor) may use two types: the descriptive abstract and the informative abstract.
See examples of abstracts as they occur within technical reports.
The descriptive abstract provides a description of the report's main topic and purpose as well an overview of its contents. As you can see from the example, it is very short—usually a brief one- or two-sentence paragraph. In this report design, it appears on the title page. You may have noticed something similar to this type of abstract at the beginning of journal articles.
In this type of abstract, you don't summarize any of the facts or conclusions of the report. The descriptive abstract does not say something like this:
Problem: Based on an exhaustive review of currently available products, this report concludes that none of the available grammar-checking software products provides any useful function to writers.
This is the style of summarizing you find in the informative abstract. Instead, the descriptive abstract says something like this:
Revision: This report provides conclusions and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently available.
The descriptive abstract is little like a program teaser. Or, to use a different analogy, it is as if the major first-level headings of the table of contents have been rewritten in paragraph format.
Descriptive abstract on report title page.
The informative abstract, as its name implies, provides information from the body of the report—specifically, the key facts and conclusions. To put it another way, this type of abstract summarizes the key information from every major section in the body of the report.
It is as if someone had taken a yellow marker and highlighted all the key points in the body of the report then vaccuumed them up into a one- or two-page document. (Of course, then some editing and rewriting would be necessary to make the abstract readable.) Specifically, the requirements for the informative abstract are as follows:
- Summarize the key facts, conclusions, and other important information in the body of the report.
- Equals about 10 percent of the length of a 10-page report: for example, an informative abstract for a 10-page report would be 1 page. This ratio stops after about 30 pages, however. For 50- or 60-page reports, the abstract should not go over 2 to 3 pages.
- Summarize the key information from each of the main sections of the report, and proportionately so (a 3-page section of a 10-page report ought to take up about 30 percent of the informative abstract).
- Phrase information in a very dense, compact way. Sentence are longer than normal and are crammed with information. The abstract tries to compact information down to that 10-percent level (or lower for longer reports). While it's expected that the writing in an informative abstract will be dense and heavily worded, do not omit normal words such as the, a, and an.
- Omit introductory explanation, unless that is the focus of the main body of the report. Definitions and other background information are omitted if they are not the major focus of the report. The informative abstract is not an introduction to the subject matter of the report—and it is not an introduction!
- Omit citations for source borrowings. If you summarize information that you borrowed from other writers, you do not have to repeat the citation in the informative abstract (in other words, no brackets with source numbers and page numbers).
- Include key statistical detail. Don't sacrifice key numerical facts to make the informative abstract brief. One expects to see numerical data in an informative abstract.
- Omit descriptive-abstract phrasing. You should not see phrasing like this: "This report presents conclusions and recommendations from a survey done on grammar-checking software." Instead, the informative abstract presents the details of those conclusions and recommendations.
This last point is particularly important. People often confuse the kinds of writing expected in descriptive and informative abstracts. Study the difference between the informative and descriptive phrasing in the following examples:
Informative: Based on an exhaustive review of currently available products, this report concludes that none of the available grammar-checking software products provides any useful function to writers.
Descriptive: This report provides conclusions and recommendations on the grammar-checking software that is currently available.
Computerized speech recognition takes advantage of the most natural form of communication, the human voice. During speech, sound is generated by the vocal cords and by air rushing from the lungs. If the vocal cords vibrate, a voiced sound is produced; otherwise, the sound is unvoiced. The main problem in speech recognition is that no two voices produce their sounds alike and that an individual voice varies in different conditions. Because voices do vary and because words blend together in a continuous stream in natural speech, most recognition systems require that each speaker train the machine to his or her voice and that words have at least one-tenth of a second pause between them. Such a system is called an isolated word recognition system and consists of three major components that process human speech: (1) the preprocessor which removes irregularities from the speech signal and then breaks it up into parts; (2) the feature extractor which extracts 32 key features from the signal; and (3) the classification phase which identifies the spoken word and includes the training mode and reference pattern memory. Spoken words are identified on the basis of a certain decision algorithm, some of which involve dynamic programming, zero crossing rate, linear predictive coding, and the use of a state diagram.
Voice recognition systems offer many applications including data entry, freedom for mobility, security uses, telephone access, and helpful devices for the handicapped. However, these same systems also face problems such as poor recognition accuracy, loss of privacy among those who use them, and limited vocabulary sizes. The goal of the industry is the development of speaker-independent systems that can recognize continuous human speech regardless of the speaker and that can continually improve their vocabulary size and recognition accuracy.
Informative abstract. This type summarizes the key facts and conclusions in the body of the report. (By the way, speech recognition has come a long way since this report was written in 1982!)
The executive summary is a hybrid of the descriptive and informative summaries. Written for executives whose focus is business decisions and whose background is not necessarily technical, it focuses on conclusions and recommendations but provides little background, theory, results, or other such detail. It doesn't summarize research theory or method; it makes descriptive-summary statements: for example, "theory of heat gain, loss, and storage is also discussed."
To get a sense of the executive summary, study the following example:
Rural Health Clinics: Requirements
The most important needs of rural health clinics, which require energy resources, are as follows:
Refrigeration. Absorption refrigeration, fueled by propane or kerosene and common at unelectrified health clinics, is vulnerable to interruption and is thus inadequate for the vaccines needed in immunization programs for dangerous diseases including polio, diptheria, tetanus, pertussis, tuberculosis, measles, yellow fever, and Hepatitus B. Instead, compression-type refrigerators powered by 12- or 24-volt storage batteries and recharged by photovoltaic panels or a small wind turbine can meet these needs.
Lighting. Instead of kerosene lighting, common in unelectrified communities and a known safety hazard and contributor to poor indoor air quality as well, renewable energy technologies can improve lighting in rural health clinics for such important functions as emergency treatment, birthing, maternity care, surgery, and administrative tasks.
Communications. Health care services and emergency medical treatment, in particular, are greatly facilitated with reliable radio and radio-telephone communications to other health clinics and facilities in the region. Rural health clinics can have reliable two-way regional communication via VHF radio with electricity provided by a single 30-W PV module.
Medical appliances. Small medical appliances that operate on 120-volt AC electricity require an inverter, which is easily incorporated into wind- or solar-based systems. Although photovoltaic systems can provide the electricity needed for the high temperatures, approximately 120°C (250°F) needed in sterilization, solar thermal collector systems can produce high temperatures at a lower cost, especially in areas with good solar insolation.
Water. Solar and wind power can be used to generate high volumes of potable water in tandem with techniques such as ozone treatment, reverse osmosis, photochemical treatment, also known as ultraviolet or UV, disinfection and carbon filters. Ozone treatment is very suitable to solar- or wind-generated power requiring only 0.3 watt-hours per liter. Clean water can also be provided from deep wells but requires an energy source for pumping significant volumes. Solar or wind power (or both) generated on site can economically meet the broad range of these needs.
Revision Checklist for Abstracts
As you reread and revise your abstracts, watch out for problems such as the following:
- Make sure that the descriptive abstract does not include informative abstract phrasing; make sure that the informative abstract does not include descriptive abstract phrasing.
- Make sure the descriptive abstract provides an overview of the topics covered in all the major sections of the report.
- Make sure that the informative abstract summarizes all the major sections of the report. (And don't forget—the informative abstract is not an introduction!)
- Make sure the informative abstract summarizes all key concepts, conclusions, and facts from the body of the report (including key statistical information).
- Make sure that the informative abstract excludes general, obvious, deadwood information and that the phrasing is compact and concentrated.
- Make sure that the informative abstract is neither too brief (less than 10 percent) nor too long (more than 15 percent).
I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your response—David McMurrey.