How to write #1: The conference abstract

This article is the first in our new ‘How to Write’ series which will be published via this blog over the next month or so. Most of the series will focus on how to write full research papers for publication, but this opener is going to consider a rather different form of publication- the conference abstract.

Conference abstracts are tricky things to write and suffer from a number of common problems. Many of these can be overcome with clever writing but others really require more of a change of mindset.

1. Most abstracts are prepared at the last minute. Authors tackle the challenge of writing a conference abstract in a totally different way to a paper. Full papers are rarely submitted with a deadline to work to, and yet most people I know will spend weeks or even months developing their manuscript, honing and refining, editing and finessing, before finally submitting. Abstracts for conferences are always submitted to a deadline and most people I know will write them within a few days of the deadline and spend no time at all on honing, refining, finessing, etc. Little time is invested and yet the abstract report of research is actually the most difficult thing to pull off well.

2. Writers forget what the abstract is for. Awareness of what you are trying to achieve is critical. The conference abstract is nothing like the abstract that you will write to accompany a full paper. The paper abstract is there to summarise a large study and by definition can be a very general overview that tries to entice the reader looking through PubMed to click on a link to read the full paper. The conference abstract IS the publication. Nothing else from the conference will be published and for those who don’t get to hear your talk or see your poster, it is the only record of the work that you have done. For this reason you need to use the abstract to put across a very clear, specific message or set of messages. 

3. The constraint on space is frustrating. All conferences have their own rules for abstract format. Some are generous and will give you the luxury of 400 words and yet I have written some where the limit has been more like 150. Before you even start to write your abstract you need to take this on board and plan the story accordingly. If you have less than 200 words then you are basically trying to make a single point, communicate one key headline finding. With 200-400 you might attempt something more ambitious.

4. This is often a young scientist’s first publication. The PhD student’s first exposure to publication is often their supervisor telling them that there is a good conference they should attend and that the abstract deadline is tomorrow. Some supervisors will then give good guidance on how to produce an abstract, but many do not. Students and young researchers are then left to work out all of the tricks of the abstract-writer’s trade for themselves and as a consequence some of the abstracts that appear in conference proceedings are not of the highest quality.

Your title

Hopefully your title isn’t going to eat into your word limit, but that will differ from conference to conference. The key here is to make it short but informative and specific. The subject of titles has been discussed elsewhere on this blog and the principles covered there apply equally to conference abstracts. Through the magic of hyperlinking you can skip over there now, but the key points are:

1. Keep it brief and avoid trying to be witty.
2. Make it enticing- don’t clog the title up with lots of words. A short-simple message is better advertising for your work. You want people to read it!
3. Be descriptive. What can the reader expect to learn?
4. What type of study is it- an RCT/case-control study, in vitro work? 

Structuring your abstract

If you are writing an abstract for a paper it is likely that there will be (as with JHND) a formal requirement for your abstract to be structured into discrete Background; Methods; Results; Conclusion sections. For a conference this is unlikely to be the case but as you put the piece together, just jot those section headings down to remind yourself that all of these components need to be included. You can delete them when you’ve finished. 

Although your abstract is most likely going to be a single free-flowing paragraph of text and needs to be readable, coherent and clear, you are writing it for an audience of technical specialists in your field. Purple prose is not the order of the day so you make savings against your word limit by applying some simple rules of writing:

a) Short sharp sentences.
b) Every word counts- cut out superlatives, unnecessary descriptives and any information that is not necessary for the reader to understand your story.
c) Use abbreviations (defined at first use) wherever possible. For example in my work the phrase maternal low protein diet will tend to be used 4-5 times within a 250 word abstract. That comes to 20 words in itself, so I abbreviate it to MLP at first use and make a huge saving. Abbreviations do make the abstract harder to read, but as I said, this is not purple prose and if your reader needs to read your 250 words more than once to get the full gist, that is no disgrace.

I am now going to give some tips on how to tackle each of the 4 sections of your abstract. I am including some indicative word limits for these sections, working on the assumption that you have 250 words to play with. Obviously how you really structure it will depend upon the precise nature of your work, but the key message is that in order of importance we have Results>Methods>Background>Conclusion.

Background (50 words): A long background/mini-literature review is not required here. It will only waste space that you need for communicating your results. We are looking here at 2-3 sentences which set out why you did the study and perhaps what your hypothesis was. The background should lead seamlessly into the methods section. For example:

Sodium reduction is proposed to reduce blood pressure (BP) in adults and public health strategies are based on health education relying on changing consumer behaviour. We assessed the efficacy of a more intense, dietitian-led approach through a randomised controlled trial.’

Methods (70 words): This is a critical section as you need to communicate the core detail of your study. You will need to ensure that you include details such as sample size, numbers of subjects in different groups, detail of the intervention, what measurements were made, duration of the study,what was the research design, where was the study set, etc. This requires some very well crafted, detailed sentences. For example, following up from the background above where I have already indicated the study was an RCT:

‘Recruitment was from a population of men aged 68-79 attending Nottingham City Hospital. Men were randomised to a nutrition education leaflet (control; C, n=50) or five sessions targeting a 3g/day salt reduction led by a dietitian (intervention; I, n=50) over a period of 4 months. Sodium excretion was determined at baseline and at all follow-up clinics. Blood pressure was determined using a Dynamap machine at 3-monthly intervals for 2 years.’ 

Results (100 words): When somebody reads your abstract, this section is the part that they really want to see. This is why the results section needs to be the longest and most detailed component of your abstract. Your job is to convey as much detail about your findings as space will allow. Being vague is not good enough. ‘Completion rates differed between control and intervention subjects‘ will not suffice. Which group had the higher completion rate? Was the difference statistically significant? You have to make every word count, so add in the detail that your reader wants to see. Why not say ‘More control subjects (92%) completed the study than intervention subjects (85%, P<0.01).’ That’s just a few extra words but much more specific.

Usually there is not much scope to put tables or graphs in an abstract, so your results will have to be a narrative, but as set out below, make sure that narrative is packed with data so that the reader gets full value from your piece.

Conclusion (30 words): The abstract is not the place for extensive discussion of your data or comparing or contrasting to other published work. My advice is to make this very simple and state whether the study hypothesis was supported or not, what the main finding of the study means in terms of importance or what new perspective it offers to the field. Don’t get drawn into woolly endings such as ‘further work is needed to fully evaluate the clinical significance of these observations‘. Be bold. Be definite. Be factual and stick to the simple interpretation of your statistics. ‘This study showed that for this population, restricting intake of sodium lowered blood pressure and risk of hypertension. Dietitian-led interventions are effective in managing blood pressure in elderly men’. 

Show data!

Remember, this abstract will be the only published record of the work you present at the conference. It is also the lure to get people who are attending the meeting to come and see your presentation. It is rare that you have space to put in a lot of data (though in an abstract that is 400 words you can easily put in a table and some conferences will permit a single graph) but you must include some. The results section is the most important part of your abstract and you should at the very least give the results of the primary objective that you assessed in your study, expressed in words with P values and other details in parentheses.Try and express as much as you can in as few words as possible. Bearing in mind the weighting of the word limit that is allocated to the results section, well crafted sentences can deliver a lot of detail of the study findings.

For example:

Compared to control the MLP group had impaired renal function (33% lower GFR, P<0.01; 40% lower RBF, P<0.001) and were more likely to develop renal failure (OR 2.74 [2.01-3.45]).

Thus in 28 words I have communicated 3 key findings of the study with sufficient detail for the reader to know what was assessed and what the headline outcomes were.

Another example:

90% of group I and 88% of controls completed the study protocol. Significant decreases in SBP (C: 157±8; I:124±12 mmHg, P<0.001), DBP (C: 100±8; I:84±12 mmHg, P<0.01) and HR (C: 97±10; I:74±18 bpm, P<0.05))were noted in group I. The prevalence of hypertension declined by 23% (P<0.05) but there was no difference in risk of adverse events within 6 (HR 0.98 [0.8-1.2], 12 (HR 0.88 [0.6-1.2] or 24(HR 0.97 [0.8-1.2] months of baseline.

72 words there, but a comprehensive account of the study outcomes, including the non-significant results. 

Note that I have not included descriptors of whether the data is shown as Mean±SD or Mean±SEM, or what statistical tests were used. Generally there is no space for this so we leave this out. Do make sure that other key information is included though- how many subjects were there per group for example?

Using references

Very few conferences will expect their abstracts to include citations to references that support the work. The one notable exception that springs to mind is the Nutrition Society where the expectation is that abstracts DO include citations and a short reference list (2-3 references) at the end. The Nutrition Society make this possible by allowing authors a full side of A4 for their abstract. Most other abstracts for conferences are considerably shorter and the citation of a reference is generally too large a chunk of your word limit to be worthwhile.

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