Abstract Assignment
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Write a one-paragraph abstract for each of your papers in this course. (If some papers for this course are not part of this assignment, the syllabus will say so.) Since your papers will each pose a question and argue for an answer, this suggests an easy and natural organization for your abstract: state your question, state your answer, and summarize your argument. Be brief, direct, and succinct. Don't merely sketch a future paper. Don't merely describe a topic without describing a definite question and answer on that topic. Don't summarize your answer without the gist of its supporting argument. Don't waste time setting the stage.

Write for the audience of people who will read your abstracts but not the papers they summarize. Your peers in class will actually constitute such an audience.

That's the assignment. Here's a tip. I recommend that you write your abstract and paper simultaneously and let them influence each other. Sketch one and write a draft of the other. Let the more finished one help you correct and clarify the less finished one. As your argument and conclusion take shape, try to state them concisely for the abstract. If you can't, then you have not finished thinking them through. If you succeed in expressing your position in a few concise sentences for your abstract, then take that clarity back to the paper. If you reach this summit of clarity in your paper, take it back to the abstract.

Improving the abstract improves the paper, and improving the paper improves the abstract. If your abstract reveals to you that sections of your paper are irrelevant or out of order, use that insight to revise intelligently. If your paper grows "on its own" and becomes something quite different from what you planned, then revise your abstract to reflect the new work. Each should be fair to the other. When you think you are finished, take a minute to make sure the two are perfectly aligned; then you will know that you are finished.

Don't be surprised if this method of reciprocal correction and clarification reveals strengths and weaknesses in your position and its argument that you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. Plan to encounter clarity on both the meaning and the merits of your position. Start early to give yourself time to act on your new clarity and to throw away chunks of prose that resist refinement.

If your abstract is too long (more than, say, a paragraph of five sentences), then you have not finished reaching clarity and succinctness. If it is too short (just a sentence or two), then you are probably describing a topic rather than summarizing your conclusion and argument.

I want you to read the abstracts written by your peers and to know that your abstract will be read by your peers. In some courses I'll ask you to send your abstracts to the class email list. In others, I'll collect them and post them to a web page.

An abstract is due on the same date as the paper it summarizes. It is "for a grade" but will not be graded separately from the paper it accompanies. The fit of your abstract with your paper will be one factor in grading.

Optional. If you like, submit your abstract at least a week before the paper itself is due. Of course it will then describe a provisional position, not your final position. Seeing the abstract will help me suggest narrowing or broadening your topic question, steer you to important works or passages, or offer counter-arguments or counter-evidence for you to consider. I will return an early abstract quickly, giving you time to revise it and your paper. Please submit your abstract by email if you plan to take advantage of this option.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 1998, Peter Suber.