TITLE: The Power of a Good Abstract AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 28, 2013 2:52 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Someone tweeted a link to Philip Greenspun's M.S. thesis yesterday. This is how you grab your reader's attention:
A revolution in earthmoving, a $100 billion industry, can be achieved with three components: the GPS location system, sensors and computers in earthmoving vehicles, and SITE CONTROLLER, a central computer system that maintains design data and directs operations. The first two components are widely available; I built SITE CONTROLLER to complete the triangle and describe it here.
Now I have to read the rest of the thesis. You could do worse than use Greenspun's first two sentences as a template for your next abstract:
A revolution in <major industry or research area> can be achieved with <n> components: <component-1>, <component-2>, ... and <component-n>. The first <n-1> components are widely available. I built <program name> to meet the final need and describe it here.
I am adding this template to my toolbox of writing patterns, alongside Kent Beck's four-sentence abstract (scroll down to Kent's name), which generalizes the idea of one startling sentence that arrests the reader. I also like good advice on how to write concise, incisive thesis statements, such as that in Matt Might's Advice for PhD Thesis Proposals and Olin Shivers's classic Dissertation Advice. As with any template or pattern, overuse can turn a good idea into a cliché. If readers repeatedly see the same cookie-cutter format, it begins to look stale and will cause the reader to lose interest. So play with variations on the essential theme: I have solved an important problem. This is my solution. If you don't have a great abstract, try again. Think hard about your own work. Why is this problem important? What is the big win from my solution? That's a key piece of advice in Might's advice for graduate students: state clearly and unambiguously what you intend to achieve. Indeed, approaching your research in a "test-driven" way makes a lot of sense. Before embarking on a project, try to write the startling abstract that will open the paper or dissertation you write when you have succeeded. If you can't identify the problem as truly important, then why start at all? Maybe you should pick something more valuable to work on, something that matters enough you can write a startling abstract for the esult. That's a key piece of advice shared by Richard Hamming in his You and Your Research. And whatever you do, don't oversell a minor problem or a weak solution with an abstract that promises too much. Readers will be disappointed at best and angry at worst. If you oversell even a little bit too many times, you will become like the boy who cried wolf. No one will believe your startling claim even when it's on the mark. Greenspun's startling abstract ends as strongly as it begins. Of course, it helps if you can close with a legitimate appeal to ameliorating poverty around the world:
This area is exciting because so much of the infrastructure is in place. A small effort by computer scientists could cut the cost of earthmoving in half, enabling poor countries to build roads and rich countries to clean up hazardous waste.
I'm not sure adding another automating refactoring to Eclipse or creating another database library can quite rise to the level of empowering the world's poor. But then, you may have a different audience. -----