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Writing an Effective Abstract

A well-composed abstract is key to the effective dissemination of your research. Many articles are only ever read in abstract form. Anonymous peer-reviewers of your scholarship will read the abstract first. The African Studies Review (ASR) provides abstracts in English, French, and Portuguese, in order to reach the widest possible global audience. You need to provide one 100-word version in at least one language.

The abstract is not the first paragraph of an article. An abstract is a complete version or form of your article. It is the entire article epitomized, covering the major points, content and scope of your argument, the theoretical framework or scholarly point of departure, as well as the methodology, and type of evidentiary basis. It should be able to stand alone.

The abstract can be described as the “elevator pitch” for a possible publication: imagine you’re stuck in the elevator at the ASA Annual Meeting with one of the editors of the ASR. You need to provide an overview that hits the high points in about one minute and convinces the editor that it’s worthy of further consideration. It should very concisely summarize the topic, how it fits into the broader literature, the contribution, the research strategy, the key findings, and the broader implications.

All ASR articles are available via multiple digital platforms, so your abstract must be searchable online. We suggest you engage the follow two prevailing ways to optimize your abstracts for search engines. This will greatly increase the chance it will viewed widely and shared.

First, construct a descriptive title for your article. In search engine terms, the title of each article abstract is crucial. The search engine assumes that the title contains the words most relevant to the article. This is why it is important to choose a descriptive, unambiguous, and accurate title. While it may be tempting to use a quote from an informant or sources, think about how search terms draw in a potential reader who may be looking for your article or your subject area, community, or country of study, and help them by constructing a title to include those terms. Remember that people search for key phrases, not just single words.  

 Second, reiterate key title phrases in the abstract. You should reiterate the key phrases in the article title within the abstract itself. Although search engines use proprietary algorithms, the number of times that certain words and phrases appear on a webpage has a significant impact in how they are ranked in searches.

 Things You Should Do:

  • Draft the abstract AFTER you have finished the article
  • Construct a simple, descriptive and accurate title, containing all the important key terms and phrases that relate to the topic, theme, or argument
  • Repeat key phrases and incorporate them smoothly - remember that the primary audience is a potential reader and not a search engine
  • Use synonyms or related key phrases
  • Provide a clear and concise summary of the content of the chapter
  • Describe your methodology and/or data
  • Write in the third-person present tense
  • Review and revise the abstract before you submit your article for review
  • Revise the abstract every time you revise your article

Things You Should Not Do: 

  • Write the abstract BEFORE the article
  • Construct an ambiguous and elaborate title
  • Provide general facts - be sure to focus on the core discussions/findings
  • Write in the first person
  • Forget to proof-read for typos
  • Review the entire literature
  • Write in the past or future tense
  • Employ undefined abbreviations or acronyms
  • Include citations or references
  • Use overly technical language
  • Use speculative phraseology


Example of a strong abstract:

 “States at War: Confronting Conflict in Africa”

Catharine Newbury

 In the early 1990s, democratization dominated discourse on African politics. However fraught with contradictions, processes of political liberalization held out hope for more responsive, accountable government—and some African countries achieved impressive gains. But in many parts of the continent the outlook at the beginning of the twenty-first century is decidedly more somber. An increase in violence and war has had devastating consequences for people and their communities. Newbury examines several approaches to confronting these conflicts and highlights three lessons that emerge. In some situations, international involvement is essential to end a war, and doing this successfully requires enormous resources. But external assistance cannot follow a single template; it must be adapted to different local dynamics and coordinated with efforts of peace-builders within. Newbury argues that greater support is needed for efforts to alleviate the conditions that spawn wars and violence.

Example of a weak abstract:

“Conflict and Chaos: Understanding War, Rethinking Violence”

Catharine Newbury

This article argues that in the early 1990s democratization dominated African political discourse. I explore the processes of political liberalization and how they were fraught with contradictions, although they held out hope for more responsive, accountable government. I identify some African countries that achieved impressive gains. But it has been argued by other scholars (Schmidt 2007; Jones 2005; Asante 1996) that the outlook at the beginning of the twenty-first century will be decidedly more somber. An increase in violence and war has had overdetermining ramifications broadly. I will examine several approaches to confronting these conflicts and I will highlight three lessons that emerge. In some situations, international involvement may be essential to end a war, and doing this successfully may require enormous resources. But external assistance cannot follow a single template; it must be adapted to different local dynamics and coordinated with efforts of peace-builders within. The author cites various data to argue that greater support is needed for efforts to alleviate the conditions that spawn wars and violence.