Summaries & Abstracts in Technical Documents

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  • 0:01 A Need for Summaries
  • 0:55 Descriptive Abstracts
  • 2:15 Informative Abstracts
  • 3:50 Executive Summaries
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

People want to know whether a document is relevant to their business without having to read the entire document. This video explains the different types of summaries and abstracts and how to write them.

A Need for Summaries

How much of a document do you actually read? In our fast-paced society, research suggests that it's not much. According to a recent study, users only read approximately 20% of words on a website. People often believe this is enough information to determine whether or not to spend more time actually reading through the details of the site. Although we don't know the average amount of a work document that is read, we can assume the amount is pretty limited. We just don't have time!

That's why we need summaries and abstracts. These shortened overviews of documents allow readers to decide whether or not they need to read the complete document. Summaries and abstracts allow readers to determine the results and recommendations of the document and whether or not the document is applicable to their business.

There are three main types of summaries and abstracts used in technical writing:

  • Descriptive abstracts
  • Informative abstracts
  • Executive summaries

Descriptive Abstracts

Descriptive abstracts provide a general overview of the report's main purpose and content. They are very short, usually only one or two sentences, and less than 100 words. These abstracts simply introduce the document; they do not provide conclusions or recommendations. Descriptive abstracts provide very few details about the content of the document. A descriptive abstract most often appears on the title page of the document. They can also appear at the top of the first page of the document itself.

The key to writing a descriptive abstract is to focus on the main topic of the document instead of the specific details. Look at the following example: 'Based on rigorous trials using rubber, steel, and Styrofoam, this report recommends using Styrofoam to make new rubber duckies. It also recommends changing the name to styro-ducky.'

The problem with this descriptive abstract is it's too specific. The focus should be on the topic, not the conclusion. Instead, the abstract should say, 'This report provides results and recommendations on the use of different materials to create rubber duck toys.'

Notice the second example does not provide details about the types of materials or the conclusions of the document. A descriptive abstract is not meant to explain results. It acts more as an introduction to the document.

Informative Abstracts

For longer documents, a descriptive abstract does not provide enough information for the reader to make an informed decision about whether to examine the entire document. Therefore, most technical documents longer than ten pages will use an informative abstract.

An informative abstract is a summary of the most significant points of a document. This type of abstract is much longer than a descriptive abstract, with an average length of 10% of the length of the document. Therefore, if a document is ten pages, the abstract will be one page in length.

An informative abstract provides specific information from the body of the document, including:

  • The main purpose
  • Important details
  • Results or conclusions
  • Recommendations

Stay away from including references, charts, definitions, and background information in the abstract. This information is not necessary for the audience to determine whether or not to read the document.

Your intended audience also determines the focus of the abstract. Let's say you want to invent a new toy - the indestructible rubber ducky. First, you must test different materials to determine the best way to create the new toy. After conducting extensive research, you are ready to publish a document showing the results.

If your audience is potential producers, entrepreneurs, or scientists, your abstract will focus on the materials, the procedure of your experiments, and how the toy will be made. However, if your audience is a CEO or another high-level executive, your focus will be on the bottom line. How much will the new toy cost to create? How much can they be sold for? These questions can be answered in a different type of abstract called an executive summary.

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