Titles, abstracts, and keywords are the most neglected aspects of academic writing. Neglecting their relevance is among the silliest things you can do in your career. Although an article (as well as a research proposal) starts with a title, an abstract, and usually five keywords, you will have to deal with these three elements only after you have finished working on your text. Indeed, TAK are the last thing you write in your article and research proposal. Yet they are the first things your write for a talk you will give, if you are proposing one or have been asked to provide a TAK by the organisers. Accordingly, the order of writing is the following:
Body of the article
Aims and Objectives
Body of the talk
There are three main reasons why you want to write outstanding TAKs:
- You want to be read: TAK is what people read before deciding whether the reading (or the purchase) is worth it.
- You want to get funded: TAK is the only element of your proposal that is accessed by all people handling your proposal.
- You want to join that conference: TAK is what organisers evaluate to decide who will participate in a conference.
You can write titles, abstracts, and keywords in any order you like. The important thing to remember is that each element of TAK has its own function that you need to understand if you want to choose the right words and an effective wording:
- Title: To catch the attention of the reader
- Abstract: To explain clearly your aim and procedure
- Keywords: To indicate precisely what you are talking about
According to LaPlaca, Lindgreen & Vanhamme, “the purpose of the title is to get the reader excited about the manuscript, and to invite the reader into the manuscript.” (p. 203). This implies to main rules of conduct when thinking of a title for your paper:
- it should be captivating: The title must catch the reader’s attention in an elegant way
- it must never be equivocal: The title must represent clearly the main feature of the text
Titles are the most individual features of any academic writing. However, if you neglect to consider the two main rules, that may lead to the paper’s ineffectiveness. Namely, less people will read it because:
- it looks uninteresting or boring (against the first rule).
- it does not seem to discuss what they need (against the second rule).
Always fear potential misalignments: in this case, of title and contents. While no general rules aside from the two rules of conduct can be given for titles, there are six tips that can be very important:
- Keep your title short: you cannot have two or three lines of text, which is brutal!
- You can use the format “title: subtitle”, which is a nice format to balance catchiness and clarity. But mind the title shortening by publishers: avoid starting all you articles with the same words!
- Try not to start a title with an explicit quotation – especially a quotation in another language! If it is between quotation marks, it will mess with the referencing of your paper.
- Be elegant: semantically and syntactically! Find nice, telling words and wording. Do not use slangs or inappropriate words.
- Think always of a potential reader looking at your title: what would she think? What could work as a mover for her to purchase your article, listen to your talk, be positively open towards your text?
- Feel free to think outside the box and find something unique and clever. But remember that the title must speak of your paper and be aligned with it. And you shall never be excessive, ever!
An abstract is a pondered summary of your text (an article, a talk, a proposal). It allows readers of different sorts (editors, evaluators, organisers, scholars, etc.) to have a well-grounded, specific, and accurate idea of your text. It is halfway between a summary and a blurb. Like a summary, the abstract gives an accurate yet brief description of your text produced to explain your aims, procedures, and context of reference. Like a blurb, it gives a compelling sketch of your text to persuade potential readers to actually read it. LaPlaca, Lindgreen & Vanhamme stress that “the abstract serves as an advertisement for the article. […] the abstract must create sufficient interest in the article to justify its purchase, for example, the research question, the framework of the research, the research methodology, and/or the findings” (p. 203).
A good abstract is double performative:
- It describes your text in an accurate way.
- It promotes your text and yourself with it.
As a craftsperson, you have to carve your material by writing a reliable and accurate summary of your text. Once you have that material, you can polish and shape it by playing with the aspects that will promote your research.
There are two main types of abstracts (see the article by LaPlaca, Lindgreen & Vanhamme for more information), the former more common to the humanities, the latter to the hard sciences:
- Descriptive abstract: Accurately describes the contents of an article giving a summary that helps the reader decide whether to read the whole text.
- Informative abstract: Describes the text following the IMRaD structure (introduction, methods, results, discussion).
Descriptive abstract are the most common kind of abstracts for articles in the humanities. However, informative abstract are usually preferred with research proposals (at least, in continental Europe). The structure of a descriptive abstract is pretty much the same of an article introduction:
- Research question
- Procedural steps
Although the structure is similar, abstracts have an additional function that introductions do not have. While they both describe your text, abstracts have to promote it, too. Moreover, an abstract is far shorter than an article introduction… which might be a source of problems.
LaPlaca, Lindgreen & Vanhamme underline the function of the abstract as follows: “the abstract must emphasize the research’s findings and its contributions to conceptual perspectives, methodological considerations, and/or managerial practices, among others.” Accordingly, an abstract should be
Always remember that the abstract is your best chance to promote your research. Make clear how your text contributes to the debate, open new perspectives, resolves long-lasting problems, has interdisciplinary implications, and so on. Yet, do not oversell it.
I can give only four main pieces of advice (much information given about the article introduction can be reused for the abstract):
- Always make sure that you meet the reader’s expectations: If it is an article abstract, make sure that you are following the procedural steps described there. When you give your talk, you have to discuss all points mentioned by your abstract.
- Use the purchase test to assess whether the abstract is clear and persuasive: Imagine that a scholar is looking for an interpretation or some data. She does not have a subscription to the journal where you are publishing your journal. If your abstract clear and persuasive enough to convince her to spend 20 euros to purchase your article?
- If it is an article or a proposal, write it at the very end: Although you can seldom do so with talks, it is vital for you to represent in the abstract the actual structure and content of your text.
- Ask for feedback: Ask some of your colleagues to read your paper and tell you whether they are persuaded by your text and would spend money to read the whole article.
Keywords are indexing entries. They profile your text and include it into a set of thematically-linked items dealing with a similar topic. Since their function is to work as metadata of your text, keywords may appear to be scarcely important, but this is far from true. Indeed, keywords have some very important functions to perform both with articles and research proposals:
- Journal indexing
- Attraction of potential readers
- Selection of the referees
When dealing with keywords, you have to think strategically. In a proposal, your keywords will lead to one referee instead of another. In an article, they will make it more easily readable to some people than others. Think about the classes of experts that will handle your paper:
- Who would you like to be the referee of your proposal?
- Who would you like to be the reader of your article?
Act accordingly by finding ways to facilitate that they will indeed handle your paper!
The only rule that you should follow when thinking of possible keywords is to be specific, yet not too much. This general rule is accompanied by six tips:
- Do not use only general terms like “metaphysics” or “existence”. You may use one or two general terms to situate the paper in the domain.
- Do not use only very specific terms.
- Use philosopher’s names as keywords only if they are the main subject of your article or research proposal.
- Avoid terms in foreign languages if they have a technical rendering in the main language of your text.
- Use them to describe the most important features of your paper: think of an interested reader, what keyword would she use to find your paper?
- Try to adopt a series of keywords proceeding gradually from the general domain to the specific features of your paper.
Karin De Boer, Guidelines on Writing Articles (KU Leuven, CS, 2020).
Peter LaPlaca, Adam Lindgreen, & Joëlle Vanhammed, “How to write really good articles for premier academic journals”, Industrial Marketing Management 68 (2018): 202-209.
Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
“How to Write a Research Question“, The Writing Center of George Mason University (consulted on 19 October 2022).
Latest update: October 2022