Grad students learn trade secrets: Writing Research Abstracts

January 31, 2022

SFU Linguistics graduate students joined students from across the country and presenter Dr. Richard Compton, Program Chair for the Canadian Linguistics Association (CLA), on January 20 for a workshop on creating captivating and effective research abstracts.  The workshop was organized by SFU Linguistics Lecturer and current Graduate Studies Chair Heather Bliss as part of the LING 891 seminar series and was then co-sponsored by the CLA and SFU’s Department of Linguistics.

Regardless of whether students are submitting to this year’s CLA conference or will be preparing papers to be submitted elsewhere, the tips and recommendations provided are timely and insightful.

Writing abstracts is an important part of graduate work in academia, though it is also difficult and potentially frustrating. Often, abstracts come with word limits, and require the researcher to provide a lot of information regarding the methodologies employed, the connection of the work to the existing literature, the relevance of the work for linguistics in general, what the conclusions were, etc. As one graduate student emphasized, it’s just a huge challenge “trying to summarize a 60-page paper into 150-300 words.”

Crafting an abstract can be like a balancing act: you want to provide details, or else your abstract looks too promissory and without substance; but if you give too many details, your abstract might be too long and will not meet size requirements. If you spend too much space explaining background points, then you have less space to discuss your methodology and evidence; but if you don’t give enough background, reviewers may not understand the purpose of your abstract, and hence deny your submission. And so on.

To make the abstract-writing process easier, Dr. Compton emphasized a few features of good abstracts, and shared some helpful tips on writing abstracts.

Dr. Compton emphasized thinking of the potential reviewer of the abstract. Successful abstracts are clear, well organized, free of unnecessary and confusing jargon, and get straight to the point. Unsuccessful abstracts are difficult to follow, too long and unfocused, and emphasize points that are non-essential to the main argument.

When asked for her takeaway, SFU Linguistics MA student, Magdalena Ivok, said the message was all about “clarity, clarity, and clarity.” But how can you ensure that your abstract is clear and easy to read?

Many helpful tips were given, including getting peers with varying degrees of expertise on the topic to look over the abstract and assess for readability, avoiding the use of too many idiosyncratic acronyms, ensuring that all of the information given is essential to the abstract, and so on.

A few tips stood out for their promise of efficiency and effectiveness.

For example, if you’re applying to an annual conference, Compton suggests having a look at the abstracts posted for successful submissions to last year’s version of the conference. Doing so will give you a good idea of the kinds of abstracts that are accepted, and you can use those abstracts to compare with your own.  Similarly, when sending papers to journals, look at abstracts for published articles in previous journal editions.

The general point? When looking to craft a successful abstract, look at successful abstracts! 

Dr. Compton also noted that formatting can be crucial. Bolded or italicized headers are not only useful for highlighting information, but also for guiding the flow of the abstract. When it comes to writing abstracts, being as concise as possible is important—a lot more important than things like whether or not the prose is flowery or poetic.

Dr. Compton shared examples of successful abstracts submitted to conferences and journals alike, where a striking feature of each was their extreme level of straightforwardness. Where could you find the main thesis of the submission? Right after the italicized subtitle ‘Main thesis’. Where’s the evidence? Right after ‘Evidence’. How are the results related to contemporary literature? Just look for the subtitle ‘Relation to contemporary literature’.

A lively Q&A period followed the presentation.

One student asked: “how can we balance between maintaining concision and providing enough background material so that the reader, who is not necessarily an expert in that exact topic, can follow along?” From another student: “How should one include things like graphs and other diagrams? How much detail should be included?” Looking at past abstracts helps resolve these questions.  How much background did those abstracts provide? What about their figures: how were they placed? Answers to these questions provide a clear understanding of the kinds of presentation styles that are acceptable.

As linguistics graduate students scramble to submit abstracts to this year’s CLA conference, or for other approaching deadlines, following these tips will help them be successful.

Presenter Bio: Richard Compton is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and chairholder of the Canada Research Chair in Transmission and Knowledge of the Inuit Language (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council). He earned his PhD in Linguistics from the University of Toronto in 2012. His work explores the morphosyntax of agreement, polysynthetic word-formation, and lexical and functional categories in Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun. He co-authored a dictionary of Inuinnaqtun with Emily Kudlak that was published by Nunavut Arctic College (Kudlak & Compton 2018). He was the lead organizer of the 21st Inuit Studies Conference which was held at UQAM in 2019, and he is the Program Chair for the Canadian Linguistics Association.

The annual conference of the CLA will take place online in June.

The CLA conference is a very friendly and accessible conference, and a great opportunity for emerging scholars to network with other Canadian linguists.

Abstracts are due February 13. 

Information about the conference, submitting papers and the Best Student Paper and Poster contest can be found here: Appel à communications : Congrès de l’ACL 2022 | Call for papers: 2022 CLA conference (