1 December 2007
We all read and write long documents, reports, reviews, data outputs, etc. as an integral part of our daily work routine. When reading the document is performed as part of a focused search for a specific piece of information/data we face a complex situation- how can we locate the precise document we're searching from among dozens (or hundreds/thousands) of existing files?
An efficient solution which is more frequently used in academic environments is the abstract. An abstract is a short paragraph which serves as an ID of sorts for documents content and assists in its comprehension. The abstract enables the reader to review a short description and decide whether this document suits his/her needs. The abstract allows the reader to clarify the document's main point, and saves the reader the time and effort involved in scrolling down the document itself in an attempt to understand the document's subject.
In order for the abstract to be effective and attain its objective(s), it must be short; it must be concise, so that the user can base his/her decision whether its content is relevant based solely on reading the abstract. Its purpose is functional; it is therefore vital that it contributes to the comprehension of the document's content and does not inhibit finding the desired item. Furthermore, it should be promotional and enticing and emphasize the subject it describes.
Many portlets (such as 'subject in focus') use as an abstracts the first sentences of the full text. This, however, is not necessarily an abstract, and in most cases it will not serve as such. These are actually examples of marketing triggers meant to encourage the reader to enter and read the text. Unlike these marketing triggers, an abstract has an explicitly functional purpose- it is meant to assist the reader in location relevant information which will in turn improve his/her work by making it more efficient.
There are four main types of abstracts:
Summarizing abstract: presents a summary of the content featured on the page. Is similar to the intro that starts off every news item. Example: three missiles have been launched in the Negev area. Neither civilians nor property have been harmed".
Key sentence abstract: is meant to convey the page's main message, so that users that read this sentence only will understand the page's subject.
Descriptive abstract: a 'dry' description of the document's subject, similar to an abstract preceding an academic article. This option is the simplest one for the writer yet the most boring for readers and therefore contributes minimal added value.
Functional abstract: describes when and how the information featured on this page can be utilized. Example: "this page offers information on tax payment…"
Concise writing is not only a readers' work tool, it is also used for filtering the relevant and important information. The abstract's importance is derived from its purpose: to present the main components of the page's content and its message. Its quality will affect the reader's decision whether to delve into this page or continue searching.
A focused abstract makes the difference between skimming through abstracts and needlessly reading entire articles.