Snoopy, sitting upon his doghouse, tapped out the following sentence on his typewriter: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Cartoonist Charles Schultz's (Richardson, 2010) simple, captivating sentence fascinated readers, compelling them to read the next sentence and the sentences after that. In this article, we describe the significance of the first sentence of an abstract and the sentences after using Schimel's (2012) storytelling method of scholarly writing.
The American Nurses Credentialing® Center's (2018) Magnet Recognition and Pathway to Excellence® programs call for enhancement of nursing, with the end goal of empowering nurses and improving the health of the public. Obtaining grant funding and the dissemination of quality improvement, evidence-based practice projects, and research findings is integral to this process. Each of these projects requires an abstract.
Conferences, journals, and granting agencies provide guidelines on the word count of abstracts (typically 100 to 250 words). The standard format called for is typically a title, introduction/background, purpose, methods, results, and implications/conclusions. These guidelines suggest that an abstract requires scholarly writing that is objective and dispassionate. In actuality, an abstract is a textual signpost that begs conference peer reviewers to choose this project for an oral or poster presentation. If creatively constructed, a well-written journal abstract acts as a motivator for readers to read the entire article, digest the information, and potentially implement the ideas into their practice. Many funding sources (in particular, private organizations) do not have peer reviewers who are experts in all fields they fund. A simple, concretely written abstract may compel a reviewer to consider funding even before reading the first page of a grant.
Writing a Compelling Story
The best abstracts tell a compelling story. Think of an abstract as a story that uses a formalized structure. Schimel (2012) provided three overarching storytelling suggestions:
- Simple: We are often so engrossed in a topic that we sometimes forget there is a world of readers who may not have any prior knowledge of a topic. Simple does not mean simplistic. Simple means cutting through a significant amount of data and information to find the simple story within the material.
- Concrete: Hold a reader's attention by being specific, credible, and concrete. Abstracts that are constructed mainly of scholarly, scientific terms or complicated jargon, are doomed. Do not use grandiose, overblown, or exaggerated words as these may damage the credibility of the project. Save the statistics and mathematical notations for the article itself. One way to keep an abstract concrete is to keep the thesaurus in the Microsoft Word® document open as a reminder to look for alternative words.
- Unexpected: Find the unexpected element in the project. Add a suggestion of surprise or intrigue to excite curiosity and a desire to continue reading the material.
These basic storytelling principles can act as a guidepost to developing a gripping and persuasive abstract. There is a shift of thought from writing down information to sharing knowledge with an audience. This shift in thought is reflected in the words, sentences, and syntax used.
Take time to carefully construct a title that aligns with the contents of the abstract. Use at least two to three keywords from the contents of the abstract in the title of the project. Avoid creating hype or using craftily worded titles, as this may skew the credibility of the project.
Introduction or Background
The opening sentence of the introduction or background statement is the most important sentence. This sentence will entice readers to read the next sentence and all the sentences after that. View this sentence as the gateway into your work. Schimel (2012) recommended that one avoids starting this section with “little is known about x” (p. 54). This is a flag to peer reviewers that an inadequate literature review was not done or that you may be embellishing your case. Rather, share with your readers what is known. The opening sentence also defines the audience that would be most interested in this work. Take time to craft a simple, concrete introductory sentence that engages the widest audience possible.
Illuminate the gap in the literature, or the problem you were facing that motivated the desire or need for this project. Share the intriguing question that compelled this project. Schimel (2012) said, “Focusing on objectives instead of questions is weak science and weak storytelling” (p. 59).
Use language that will engage the broadest audience possible to describe the methods. Do not overwhelm the reader with every methodological detail of the project. Guide as many readers as possible to understanding the methods by telling a simple story that lays out how the project was conducted in a precise manner.
The results section should convey the main contribution of the project. Synthesize the data into the simplest form possible within the context of the story you are telling. Use statistics sparingly. Significant p values placed in brackets after findings are appropriate but save other statistical details for the article.
Implications and Conclusions
Schimel (2012) considered this section just as important as the first sentence and warned, “don't blow the punchline” (p. 83). In this section, tell readers how the world has changed because of the answers found to your question. Share with readers why this project was important and why it holds promise for the future.
This article has shared a handful of Schimel's (2012) storytelling principles for scholarly writing. We recommend this book for all scientific writing and look forward to reading abstracts that tell simple, concrete, and exciting stories.