The First Step In Writing Abstracts - Retrieval Reading


In my last post I mentioned Edward T. Cremmins' excellent book on abstracting which suggests a  three-stage analytical reading process when writing abstracts.  The first step, retrieval reading, has the writer read quickly through the text looking for possible information to include in the abstract.  Cremmins uses an easy and effective system to mark various parts of the paper for possible future use in an abstract.  Cremmins assigns geometric symbols (square, circle, arrow) to various components of the text which need to be included in an abstract (purpose, methodology, results, implications).  For example, in the margins he places a circle by material discussing purpose, scope and methods and a square for results.  


I use a similar method with my Basic Legal Skills students when I teach them the formula for organizing legal analysis (CREAC).  I tell them to use highlighters to mark various parts of their memos so they can make sure they are following an analytical structure that legal readers know and expect.  For example, they should use a green highlighter to mark rule sentences and a yellow highlighter to flag sentences which apply the law to the client's facts.  Mary Beth Beazley from Ohio State first introduced me to this method which helps many students keep their work organized by helping them in a very visual way to avoid the common error of discussing client facts before explaining the law. Abstract writers could modify this process and during their retrieval reading use different colored highlighters to mark key terms, phrases and sentences for the various elements of the abstract.  Having the material already classified by elements will make the actual drafting process much simpler for the writer. 


Others suggest reverse outlining which involves trying to write one main idea from each paragraph of the paper and then grouping these main ideas for each of the paper's sections into one sentence. See The Writing Center University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Abstracts   This might be particularly useful in law since we are trained to begin paragraphs with straightforward thesis sentences.  A similar strategy is to cut and paste sentences of key passages into a document which can later be edited into an abstract.  Id.


Spending a little bit of time on this retrieval reading process will ultimately save time for the writer and produce better and more informative abstracts.  When writers locate key terms, phrases and sentences before writing the various components of an abstract, they consciously and systematically identify the most important parts of the paper.  Skipping this step and failing to organize the material at the beginning of the abstract writing process will only make your efforts at condensing the text for the abstract unmanageable and frustrating.