Here’s a draft of the new section on Writing an Abstract, to be published in the fourth edition of my Academic Legal Writing book. There’s still plenty of time to improve it, so I’d love to get feedback. (By the way, the abstracts I give as examples are my own, but I’d prefer to use someone else’s abstracts, especially if they are very effective. So if you have any recommendations for very good abstracts, please pass them along.)
An abstract is a short summary — one to three paragraphs — of an article. Some journals include an abstract at the start of the article, or put all the abstracts from an issue on the issue’s table of contents, or put the abstracts on the journal’s Web site. These journals will either require you to write the abstract, or will offer to write it for you. Reject their offer, and write the abstract yourself: It’s your article, and you’ll know better how to summarize it effectively.
But even if the journal doesn’t publish an abstract, you should write one anyway. Services such as the Social Science Research Network (see p. 265) maintain e-mail distribution lists through which hundreds or thousands subscribers get abstracts of forthcoming articles. These distribution lists are invaluable tools for you to get readers for your work.
Whether in a law review or on a distribution list, the abstract is an advertisement for your article. True, you don’t want money from your “customers” (the audience) — you want their time and attention. But their attention is scarce, and lots of authors are competing for it. You want readers to “buy” your article in one of two ways:
- by reading the article (or at least the Introduction) right away, or
- by remembering it (even if just vaguely) for the future, so that when the underlying issue becomes important to them, they can find and read the article then.
And the audience for your advertisement is quite demanding. They’ve generally found the abstract just through a quick skim of an SSRN e-mail or a law review table of contents. (People who find the article through a citation or a Westlaw or Lexis search are probably more likely to skim the Introduction, which is immediately available to them, rather than starting with the abstract.) Readers of your abstract therefore aren’t at all sure the article will be of any value to them.
You need to quickly show them this value. You need to clearly and tersely tell the reader (1) what problem the article is trying to solve, and (2) what valuable original observations the article offers. Naturally, the abstract can’t go into much detail. But it has to at least give the reader a general idea of what the article contributes.
Here, for instance, is an adequate abstract, adequate because it quickly captures the essence of the value added by the article:
People often argue that symbolic expression — especially flag burning — isn’t really “speech” or “press,” and that the Court’s decisions protecting symbolic expression are thus illegitimate.
But it turns out that the original meaning of the First Amendment likely includes symbolic expression. Speech restrictions of the Framing era routinely treated symbolic expression the same as literal “speech” and “press.” Constitutional speech protections of that era did so as well, though the evidence on this is slimmer. And the drafting history of the phrase “the freedom of speech, or of the press,” coupled with the views of leading commentators from the early 1800s, suggests that the First Amendment’s text was understood as protecting “publishing,” a term that at the time covered communication of symbolic expression and not just printing. Though the Court has never relied on this evidence, even originalists ought to accept the Court’s bottom line conclusion that the First Amendment covers symbolic expression.
The first sentence does three things. First, it notes the general topic of the article — the First Amendment and symbolic expression generally. Second, the sentence identifies the specific focus of the article, which is whether the text of the First Amendment must be read as protecting only “speech” and “press” and not symbolic expression. Third, the sentence very quickly provides a concrete illustration (flag burning) for the abstraction (symbolic expression).
The second sentence explains the article’s claim: The original meaning of the First Amendment likely covers symbolic expression. Readers who stop reading there will at least remember something like “There’s an article that says that even originalists should approve of the Court’s flagburning decisions.”
That would be an oversimplification of the article’s claim, but that’s fine — any one-sentence summary that lingers in people’s minds will inevitably be an oversimplification. The important thing is that if the issue comes up for readers in the future, they might well search for the article, find it, read it, and use it. And, if the author is lucky, maybe some readers will be interested enough to actually read the article right away, or at least move from reading the abstract to reading the Introduction.
The next three sentences quickly summarize the main arguments that the article uses to support its claim. These arguments — here, historical assertions, though for another article they might be normative arguments or empirical findings — are part of the contribution that the article offers. Again, the summary is an oversimplification, and as a result may not be entirely clear to all readers. But it should at least give the reader a glimpse of the observations that the article makes.
Finally, the last sentence ties the argument to the caselaw: The sentence explains that this is an article that offers historical support for the Court’s precedents, rather than arguing against the Court’s precedents.
Many authors try to fit an abstract into one paragraph, and some journals seem to prefer that. I advise against this, unless the abstract is very short. Shorter paragraphs tend to be more readable, and longer paragraphs tend to be alienating to many readers. And the reader of the abstract will likely be the sort of reader who is especially unmotivated to read further. The more you can do to make the abstract appealing, within the space constraints you’re given, the better.
Likewise, I like including numbering, for instance in this abstract:
How should state and federal constitutional rights to keep and bear arms be turned into workable constitutional doctrine? I argue that unitary tests such as “strict scrutiny,” “intermediate scrutiny,” “undue burden,” and the like don’t make sense here, just as they don’t fully describe the rules applied to most other constitutional rights.
Rather, courts should separately consider four different categories of justifications for restricting rights: (1) Scope justifications, which derive from constitutional text, original meaning, tradition, or background principles; (2) burden justifications, which rest on the claim that a particular law doesn’t impose a substantial burden on the right, and thus doesn’t unconstitutionally infringe it; (3) danger reduction justifications, which rest on the claim that some particular exercise of the right is so unusually dangerous that it might justify restricting the right; and (4) government as proprietor justifications, which rest on the government’s special role as property owner, employer, or subsidizer.
I suggest where the constitutional thresholds for determining the adequacy of these justifications might be set, and I use this framework to analyze a wide range of restrictions: “what” restrictions (such as bans on machine guns, so-called “assault weapons,” or unpersonalized handguns), “who” restrictions (such as bans on possession by felons, misdemeanants, noncitizens, or 18-to-20-year-olds), “where” restrictions (such as bans on carrying in public, in places that serve alcohol, or in parks, or bans on possessing in public housing projects), “how” restrictions (such as storage regulations), “when” restrictions (such as waiting periods), “who knows” regulations (such as licensing or registration requirements), and taxes and other expenses.
Though it’s unusual to number individual clauses in normal prose, here the numbering quickly shows the hurried reader how the sentence is structured, and what the four elements of the proposed framework are. It might have even been helpful to do something similar in the last paragraph. But on the other hand too much numbering might have annoyed readers — a bit of departure from standard prose style is fine, but too much would make the abstract look odd. And the quotation marks surrounding the key items in the last paragraph probably provide some internal delimiters that can serve as alternatives to numbering.