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Know Thine Audience: Abstract Submission Advice from Mark Frey, PhD

The abstract submission window for Digestive Disease Week® (DDW) 2020 is now underway through Dec. 1. Previous blog posts in the How to Write a Good Abstract series from Drs. Peek, Newman and Higgins nicely outlined the basics of abstract construction. Here, I’d like to discuss a specific issue that, if kept in mind while writing, can level up your work’s readability and increase the likelihood of scoring well in review. If you have additional questions about abstract submission, ask them in the comments below.

Mark R. Frey, PhD

Key Concept: Always Keep the Readers in Mind

Your abstract will be assigned to a committee tasked with reviewing all submissions for a given descriptor. This is typically a smallish group (three to five) of investigators (potentially more for descriptors that receive large numbers of submissions). You can expect the committee members to have a general familiarity with the field. However, similar to what you’ll encounter with study sections and journal reviewers, it is unlikely that they will all know your specific subfield in detail.

The DDW reviewers are all volunteers, and most will have a daunting pile of abstracts to score and comment on, all in their copious spare time. Frankly, the odds are good that your abstract is being read and scored late in the evening or on the weekend, and that the time spent reading it is in direct competition with other things in the reviewer’s life like playing with the kids, learning the bagpipes, a night out with friends or even just sleep.

The bottom line is that the fate of your abstract is in the hands of well-meaning but overworked colleagues, who may know little about your specific area of research. So how can you, in five to 10 minutes, get them interested enough to support your submission? Success often comes down to three things: focus, clarity, and narrative.

1. Focus

Pitching to the audience should drive your choice of what information to put in the abstract. For example, it is unnecessary (and therefore a waste of valuable space) to introduce inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) to a committee reviewing DDW abstracts. On the other hand, the molecular target of your new drug or the substrate of the enzyme you study might deserve a mention. I advise my trainees to include everything the average DDW attendee will need to understand the work, but nothing more.

How do you decide what’s needed? Again, focus — this time on What, Why, and How. Your three goals with an abstract are to:

  • Outline your project and findings (What),
  • Convince the reader that the work is important (Why) and
  • Explain your process (How).

Anything that does not directly serve one of these three points should be left behind. On the other hand, if something is required, then it must be included. A good rule of thumb is that everything appearing before the Methods should have a payoff in the Results (call it Chekhov’s Background, if you like), while on the other hand, no new overall concepts or major players should be introduced after the Methods. This helps ensure that everything is necessary and connected.

Remember that you don’t have to put everything you’ve ever done in your abstract! This is a very common mistake, presumably born out of the desire to impress the reviewers with a high volume of data. However, it generally doesn’t work, because it muddies the waters and makes for a poor story. This leads into the additional ideas of clarity and narrative.

2. Clarity (and Simplicity)

Many of us try to hide anxiety about putting the work out there by wrapping it up in complex language. Unfortunately, if the reviewer can’t figure out what you’re trying to say, they can’t score your abstract highly. This might seem obvious right now, but it’s easy to forget when trying to cram a year or more of your work into 2,900 characters or less.

Remember what you learned from writing class back in school, and keep it simple: use short sentences, stick to one point per sentence, and assemble the text so that each sentence builds logically on the previous one. Use simple language. Avoid jargon when possible, and when it must be used, define it.

I find that the best way to test for clarity is to enlist an educated reader who is not in your field and ask them to digest the abstract, then tell you what they think they just read. If they “get it,” you’re in good shape. Otherwise, rewrite and try again.

3. A Sense of Narrative

Finally, remember to frame your work as a story (documentary, of course, not science fiction, please). This will help you maintain focus and clarity, and will make the whole abstract more readable and appealing. On the review call, if I hear one of my colleagues describe an abstract as “…a loose collection of unconnected observations…” or something similar, I know that the authors failed to put a narrative thread through their presentation, and the abstract probably won’t fare well.

Keeping a sense of narrative means presenting your rationale, methods, and results with each piece of information building on the last, eventually leading to the conclusion that is reflected in the abstract’s title. If you lead with the take-home message in the title, build the evidence logically throughout the abstract body, and then repeat the take-home in your conclusions, it makes it easier for the reader to be excited about your work.

Best of luck with your writing, and see you at #DDW2020!

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Mark R. Frey, PhD, is the associate professor of Pediatrics and of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine at the University of California Keck School of Medicine. His laboratory, housed in the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, studies the pathogenesis of IBD and colitis-associated cancer. He has been a DDW abstract reviewer for more than a decade, and is currently the Chair of the AGA Institute Council Pediatric Gastroenterology and Developmental Biology section.

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