How to write titles and abstracts for readers

Authors


Neil Blair Christensen, Wiley-Blackwell, Frontier Koishikawa Bldg 4, 1-28-1 Koishikawa, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 112-0002 Japan. Email: nchriste@wiley.com

Titles and abstracts are the elements of your papers that are most frequently viewed online, often through search when they enjoy just seconds of attention in competition with the titles and abstracts of other papers. They help your busy readers prioritize their time; how to spend the least amount of time acquiring the best knowledge. Your readers include editors and reviewers.

International Journal of Urology works with a Title and Abstract Editor who helps our authors of accepted papers edit their titles and abstracts, but few journals afford or offer this type of specialist editing. Most journals will edit your language, but few will help you optimize your titles and abstracts. In an online world dominated much by searching, skimming and browsing, your titles and abstracts attract or discourage your readers within seconds.

In the following, we provide some brief advice to help you write. A few reading suggestions at the end provide more coverage of the topic. Our advice overlaps with what many others write because the difficulties that many authors experience often concern the same issues.

Titles

Titles are the first, and often only, paragraphs of your papers that are read. They must attract readers to read more, and they must clearly state what your papers are about. When readers are discouraged or confused by your titles, they quickly move onto other papers. If your titles do not include correct terms, they may also place poorly in online searches and seldom reach the readers they are intended for.

Your ideal titles are concise and informative. By concise, we mean short, using words that are essential, recognized by readers, and accurately describe the findings of your papers. Avoid long titles that obstruct quick reading by your peers. Restrict your titles to 10–12 words or shorter if possible, but do not sacrifice important key terms in your editing. Leave out words that are not needed. Avoid ‘cool’ jargon/slang and abbreviations in your title. Metaphors and creative writing can be fun in titles of editorials and opinion papers, but in general should be left out of original research titles. Few readers will search for metaphorical words, so use words that make immediate sense to your peers and multidisciplinary readers.

Readers of search, indexing and abstracting services depend on the accuracy of your titles to connect with what they are looking for while make the most of their time. Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) can help optimize links between your titles and search terminologies used by readers. There were nearly 25,000 MeSH in 2008 and the list is continuously updated. Remember that online readers, who are the majority of your readers, are just one click away from the clearer and more obvious and inviting title of a competing paper. Read the titles of your papers out loud, and remove words and revise elaborate sentences until the titles accurately reflect the discoveries of your papers. Your readers should be encouraged to read more because they immediately recognize what your papers are about; are curious to know more, and believe that the papers are worth their time – even if they only read as far as the abstracts.

Key points: Titles

  • 1Define: Use few essential words that are easily recognized by readers, and accurately describe your findings.
  • 2Attract: Your paper title is the first, and maybe only, part of your paper to be read.
  • 3Use common MeSH terminology: Readers of search, indexing and abstracting services depend on the accuracy and recognition of your title. Wrong words lead to wrong readers.

Abstracts

Your abstracts tell stories about the purpose, methods, and findings of your papers. Together with your titles, your abstracts are the essential and often only paragraphs of text that are read from your papers. Readers, including you, consume significant amounts of abstracts to stay on top of developments, and abstracts have become important time management tools. Your abstracts are essential for communicating with readers.

Different journals have different requirements for the format and length of abstracts, so consult the Author Guide for the journal you are submitting to. Here, we discuss structured abstracts that are predominantly used in medical clinical journals.

Structured abstracts are meant to facilitate standardized efficient communication between readers and authors. This can be a great help for authors for whom English is not a 1st language, or authors who are not advanced writers. Structured abstracts efficiently transfer key information of papers into the typical 200–250 words. The more you try to say, the less your readers are likely to understand or be willing to spend time on. Thus, remember: less is more.

  • • Objectives/Aims/Introduction: 30–40 words (2–3 sentences). State your hypothesis or the procedure that you are evaluating. Write in the present tense to make your text more dynamic. Answer the question: why was the study done?
  • • Methods: 50–80 words (3–5 sentences). Tell the reader how your study was done; which materials were used; who the study sample or population was; was it a prospective or retrospective study, and whether or not the study population was randomized. State what measurements were made; the methods used to assess the data and to control bias, and how the data was analyzed. Focus on the essential and avoid too much detail. Write in the past tense. Answer the question: what was done and how was it done?
  • • Results: 50–80 words (3–5 sentences). Provide the main outcome of your study, including indications of statistical significance. Write in the present tense. Answer the question: what was found?
  • • Conclusions/ Discussion: 30–40 words (2–3 sentences). Summarize your conclusion on the basis of your findings. Why it is important; what are the implications to your readers. Write in the present tense. Provide a link between the purpose and conclusion of your study. Answer the question: what was concluded?

Some authors recommend writing abstracts after completing their manuscripts; using primary sentences from each section of their papers. Others write the abstract first in order to structure the papers. Regardless of which method you use, make sure you revise your abstracts until they match your papers, and until they provide complete and informative stories.

Key points: Abstracts

  • 1Provide your readers with essentials: Readers browse quickly through abstracts to stay on top of the latest developments and read/ cite only a small proportion of what they browse.
  • 2Less is more: Structured abstracts efficiently transfer key information of papers into the typical 200–250 words.
  • 3What to do: Answer the questions: what, why, and how. Use language, keywords and terminology that are familiar to your readers. Write short sentences in the active voice.
  • 4What not to do: Do not include references to the literature, figures and tables. Do not use abbreviations, unless they are universal to all readers such as ‘DNA’, or you feel forced to substitute the repetition of long terms in your abstract. Do not allow redundant information if you can edit it out. Do not add opinions. Do not repeat the title of your paper.

Recommended Resources

  • • Cunningham SJ. How to . . . write a paper. J Orthod 2004, 31(1):47–51.
  • • Hall GM (ed.). How to Write a Paper. Blackwell Publishing. 2008.
  • • International Committee of Medical Journal Editors: http://www.icmje.org
  • • Kliewer MA. Writing it up: a step-by-step guide to publication for beginning investigators. AJR Am J Roentgenol 2005, 185(3):591–6.
  • • Lilleyman JS. How to write a scientific paper – a rough guide to getting published. Arch Dis Child 1995, 72(3): 268–70.
  • • Medical Subject Headings (MeSH): http://www.nlm.nih.gov/mesh/
  • • Neill US. How to write a masterpiece. J Clin Invest 2007, 117(12):3599–602.
  • • Peh WC, Ng KH. Abstract and keywords. Singapore Med J. 2008 Sep;49(9):664–5.
  • • Peh WC, Ng KH. Title and title page. Singapore Med J. 2008 Aug;49(8):607–8.
  • • The Good Paper Journal Club: http://network.nature.com/groups/goodpaper/
  • • Tompson A. How to write an English medical manuscript that will be published and have impact. Surg Today 2006, 36(5):407–9.

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