How to write abstracts in MLA
Published October 26, 2020. Updated July 18, 2021.
An abstract is a concise summary of a finished research paper that motivates readers to keep reading. It is a reduced form of a lengthy piece of writing that highlights the key points and briefly describes the content and scope of the paper. An abstract in MLA format generally aims to summarize the objective, methods, discussions, and conclusions of a paper.
Abstracts are usually between 100-250 words or around 5-7 sentences, depending on the type. They can include short descriptions of your motivations, objective, methods, findings, discussion, and conclusion of the paper. You can also include why you wrote the paper and why readers should be interested.
Why do you need an abstract?
Abstracts allow for a quick summary of your paper for other researchers. Busy researchers don’t have time to read everything, so they rely on the abstract to help them decide whether or not they will read the paper.
Although MLA style doesn’t require an abstract, the MLA style abstract is the most commonly used style in the humanities. If you are writing a paper for a class in literature, religion, philosophy, or other similar subjects, you should use MLA style. Check with your professor to see if an abstract is required for your paper.
Different types of abstracts
There are two different types of abstracts: descriptive and informative.
- Descriptive abstracts are approximately 100 words and give a brief overview of the paper. They do not include a full analysis and may not include the results and/or conclusions.
- Informative abstracts are longer and are approximately 150-250 words. They are a condensed version of your writing that contains information from every part of the paper.
How to write an abstract in MLA style
To write a high-quality abstract in MLA style, you will need an explanation of what research was done and what the outcomes were. Write in a clear, simple, and direct style. The abstract gives readers the information they need to decide whether to read the complete paper or not.
Here are some guidelines for writing a great abstract in MLA style:
- Finish the paper first. While it may be tempting to get a head start on your abstract, you should complete your paper before writing the abstract.
- Review your paper for key points and take notes. One way to take notes is to write one sentence for each paragraph. You should not copy directly from your text since your abstract should have different words and phrases. You do not need to include every detail, and in fact, you should avoid doing so. If you have an outline of your paper, use that as a guide to writing your abstract.
- Give a detailed account of the research methods used in the study and how the results were obtained.
- Provide an account of your findings and what you found as a result of your research.
- If your findings have larger implications, include them in the abstract.
- Condense those main points by summarizing the “who, what, where, and when” of your paper.
- If you don’t have an outline, organize information in the same order as in the paper.
- Write a rough draft of your abstract. Begin your abstract with a clear statement about your thesis and why your readers should care about what you’ve written. Then turn your notes into sentences.
- Avoid using long complicated sentences in your abstract along with ambiguous and unnecessary words and phrases. Remember that your abstract needs to be simple and easy to read.
- Do not include citations or footnotes in your abstract.
- Add transitions to show clear connections between ideas and create a smooth flow to your writing.
- Revise your abstract until it is 5-7 sentences or 250 words or less. Limit the length to one or two paragraphs.
- Proofread your abstract several times to make sure it is free of errors. People will stop reading if they see mistakes, and it will damage your credibility.
Format for an MLA abstract
- Use one-inch margins.
- Double-space the abstract.
- Place the abstract after the title and before the main body of the paper.
- Use one space after punctuation marks.
- Indent the first line of the paragraphs ½ inch from the left margin.
- Use 12-point font such as Times New Roman or Arial.
- Spell out acronyms.
- Include italics instead of quotation marks if you reference a long work in the abstract.
MLA abstract examples
- Example 1 on Cannon’s “From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet.”
- Example 2 on Sealy-Morris’s “The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy.”
- Example 1 on O’Neill’s “The Personal Public Sphere of Whitman’s 1840s Journalism.”
Cannon, Christopher. “From Literacy to Literature: Elementary Learning and the Middle English Poet.” PMLA, vol. 129, no. 3, 2014, pp. 349–364. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24769474.
MLA Handbook. 9th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2021.
O’Neill, Bonnie Carr. “The Personal Public Sphere of Whitman’s 1840s Journalism.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 4, 2011, pp. 983–998. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41414171.
Sealey-Morris, Gabriel. “The Rhetoric of the Paneled Page: Comics and Composition Pedagogy.” Composition Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, 2015, pp. 31–50. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43501877.
Wallace, Joseph. “How to Write an Abstract.” MLA Style Center, Modern Language Association of America, 5 Dec. 2018, style.mla.org/how-to-write-an-abstract/.
Published October 25, 2020. Updated July 18, 2021.
By Catherine Sigler. Catherine has a Ph.D. in English Education and has taught college-level writing for 15 years.
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