Thursday, January 04, 2007

Madison on The Art of the Abstract

Mike Madison of has a great post on the art of writing abstracts--for legal scholarship. Here's a taste:

"What I do look for is something more a paragraph that is simple, informative, and efficient, and more still than the description of the paper that I would give a colleague. I look for an abstract that is, in its own small way, elegant.

Alas, this is a matter of taste. (And it risks overlooking an important potential audience — law review editors.) Still, I prefer prefer a little craft to a package of information. I like the use of the first-person. I prefer active verbs to passive ones. I prefer not to take the point of the paper away from the first sentence, and I prefer not to use the abstract as I sometimes use the New York Times Book Review, as a substitute for reading the work itself. I want the author to want me to read the whole piece. The abstract should tell me why the author was interested enough in the problem to devote hours and hours to writing about it. It should tell me something about genre (descriptive? normative? theoretical? empirical?) and discipline (if any - or if not?). And I like an abstract that leads me up to the edge of the resolution, without giving away the whole thing."

I, the young scholar who is learning by doing, wrote on my own blog a while back complaining that this is a difficult art to learn, much less master. Madison even references this post as the only one he could find about legal scholarship, calling it a "laconic" and "deliberately, I think avoiding answering the question" of how to write a good abstract. I like this. It gives me more credit than due for what was essentially a panic-stricken ramble and call for advice. I learned a lot even from writing the ramble though--and from the comments. It generally is a good thing to imagine yourself describing your article to the non-legal reader as well as the legal reader--both of which I have on my own blog. Generally, I think there should be a balance between necessary exposition and explanation, and direct and concise statement of your argument. Sometimes the former cuts into the latter. So just talking about your article makes you figure out what you want to say about it, and what should probably be left to a closer reading. Also, I've found that when I read the abstracts of my favorite authors (not every law professor can write clearly and elegantly), I get a better picture of what a good abstract should communicate. Stylistic details differ from author to author, and there I think is the heart of Madison's question. Is there a style that may be applied to scholarly legal writing? Should we put down our Bluebooks now and again for some Strunk and White?

I can't resist writing in my own way, with my own voice. I don't write purple prose, but I don't believe in dry, passionless declarations of facts. I don't believe anyone should or does write objectively anyway. Footnotes exist to explain to student editors the literature in the field and present the other side. But obviously, all authors eventually have to pick one and argue it. So I try to craft my articles and abstracts with language that does not equivocate or appear to only weakly believe in its own argument. I don't frame things in black or white, and I certainly entertain arguments from all sides and present contrary theories and data--but at the end of the day, I want my writing to have the quality of self-conviction. I want my article to be as elegantly written as it is utilitarian. I can't give up being an English literature major--we have a love of language as much as of ideas.

I am better at writing abstracts now. I can even get them into 250 words or less, which is what some conferences require you to do. So I've gotten better at communicating what my article is about, what my ultimate argument is, and why you should care about the problem and hopefully care enough to read the whole paper. But I wonder if I do all that Madison asks me to? I took a gamble and started off my article with a slightly abstract (pun intended) declaration of the general problem, then segued myself into the theoretical and methodological approach to the problem, and then kicked in my argument and intentions of the article. I did not use the first person, instead anthropomorphizing the inanimate with "this article....". I do use active verbs though. I am a Westerner, we don't take guff, and we do not say "there is no guff being taken."

How about you, Money-Law readers? Do you think your abstracts do enough justice to your article? Are they as elegant as they are utilitarian? How abstract should abstracts be, lest they do an injustice by not adequately describing your project to potentially interested readers?

It is an interesting linguistic turn, the term "abstract"--not "extract," for that would be too easy, or "summary," which would make reading the original pointless. No, it is an "abstract."

Merriam-Webster offers these definitions of "Abstract":

Etymology: Medieval Latin abstractus, from Latin, past participle of abstrahere to drag away, from abs-, ab- + trahere to pull, draw

As a noun:

1 : a summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form; also 2: something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things 3: an abstract thing or state :

Simple enough.

As an adjective:

1 a : disassociated from any specific instance
b : difficult to understand : ABSTRUSE
c : insufficiently factual : FORMAL
2 : expressing a quality apart from an object
3 a : dealing with a subject in its abstract aspects : THEORETICAL
4 : having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content

One should never confuse the adjective form of words with its proper noun, but it's interesting, is it not? And the etymology? What do you want readers to draw from your paper? When you figure it out, put it in your abstract. But I would caution you to avoid the adjective meanings--don't make abstracts abstruse, insufficiently factual, too theoretical, impersonal, detached, or "having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content." I think abstracts should be fair representations of their object.

The word "abstract" has changed from its early meaning of pulling from the whole only the essential to well, amorphous non-representation, and non-figurative art. I don't know whether this change is older than abstract expressionism or if they can be said to be related. But it is a kind of exciting word. It can teter from one extreme to the other--from conveying what is essential and most descriptive, to conveying seemingly nothing and a distortion of the original. Be wary of either extreme--don't get too caught up in creating an executive summary, but make sure you don't misrepresent your work. In writing your abstract, make sure to pull the essential from the whole, but realize that in doing so you are creating an entirely new work that should have its own craft and style. And make sure it isn't too abstract, unless you want your readers to gaze at your abstract they way they would a Pollock--which side is up again? (For the record, I love abstract art and Pollock.)

Who knew that legal academia could be this exciting and artistic.