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The Art of the Abstract

“In Japan, the hand can be used like a knife.  But this method doesn’t work with a tomato.”

Over the New Year’s weekend, the Times reminded us that the Ginsu knife — the paradigmatic “direct response” objet — is still selling, thanks in no small part to the legacy of the original, inspired marketing campaign. The advent of direct marketing for legal scholars (SSRN and BePress emails, and the Legal Theory Blog perhaps most of all) suggests to me that an equally inspired rethinking of scholarly marketing is needed.  How can scholars create demand for their scholarly objets?  More below the fold.

Quality content may be king, but in the markets for papers and attention my download-and-read decision increasingly relies on the abstract.  What makes a good abstract?

There is no shortage of online advice regarding how to write an abstract for a scholarly paper.  Phil Koopman (CS, CMU) leaves an old but still useful page online, with instructions for writing an “efficient” abstract.  Kenneth Small (Economics, UC Irvine) does the same, with a slightly lighter touch but still aiming for the “simplest, most informative” result.  A quick search for thoughts in law turned up only Belle’s laconic narrative which (deliberately, I think) avoids answering the question, and Orin Kerr’s characteristically pithy response: “In my experience, a very good technique to use to help write an intro or an abstract is to tell someone what your paper is about, and then to quickly write down what you just told them.”

I’m not a buyer of the legal equivalent of the breathless “Wait! There’s much, much more,” but I think that Orin’s suggestion is a little casual, and the Koopman/Small classic viewpoint is a little mechanical.  What I do look for is something more than 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 away the point of the paper 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.

There are good reasons to think that little or none of this applies outside of law, and whether or not it even works in law, I can’t say; I’ve never put as much effort into abstract as I now think I should.  And perhaps I’m an outlier.  Comments?

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