By Sam Grinsell |
There is a genre of academic writing upon which much depends, but which does not get discussed as thoroughly as the conference paper, the journal article, the PhD thesis or the monograph. The conference abstract, a proposal of a few hundred words that is used to decide who will present at an event, may be among the first pieces of work that you send beyond your supervisory team. It has a tightly defined purpose: to convince the conference organisers that you will make an interesting contribution that people will want to hear. In this sense, it is like an advert for your work. Strangely, this is often for a piece of work that you have not yet finished, perhaps barely even started, as conference calls for papers are sent out months in advance of when the event will be held. So you are advertising something you have not yet done.
an abstract is like an advert for your work
Writing abstracts is a complex business, and in this post I will highlight some of the things to be aware of in constructing yours.
Understand the brief
Your conference abstract will be written in response to call for papers, an invitation put out by conference organisers that asks for interested scholars to send in suggestions for papers. Sometimes there are multiple layers to this: big conference have calls for panel suggestions, and once these have been processed the organisers of panels will issue a call for papers connected to their theme. In this post I assume it is the conference organisers who are reading your abstract, but the same principles apply if it is being sent to panel organisers.
The call for papers will identify a set of scholarly themes for the event. For some conferences, these are intended to be broad in order to attract a variety of submissions, while other events are far more specifically focused. You should think carefully about which elements of your research speak most closely to the aims of the conference, and what it is you are looking to get out of the event. Do you want some feedback on an early version of a particular chapter? A response to the big ideas of your thesis? Think about how your aims relate to the conference.
Before you start writing, make careful note of the format that has been requested. The call for papers should specify the length of the abstract, and may occasionally have other requirements. Be sure to understand exactly what is being asked for. Write to the maximum number of words allowed: if no more than 500 words are permitted, a 200 word abstract will seem too short and light on detail. Never exceed the maximum; if the length is stated as ‘in the region of x words’, stay within 10% of x. Also note the final format of the papers: you can say much more in a twenty minute presentation than in a five-minute ‘lightning’ talk!
Select from your work
An abstract should be a meeting point between your research priorities and those of the conference organisers. If their agenda is broad, your aim will be to convince them that your project sounds particularly interesting; if they have tightly defined aims, you should focus on making clear how your research contributes to the questions they want to raise. Most abstracts will need to do both of these.
do not be too tentative
If you are at an early stage in your PhD, you may wish to present the overall agenda of your project. This can be a very useful feedback-gathering exercise, and many conferences will include specific panels for students at this stage. If this is the kind of abstract that you are writing, try to be as specific as possible: set out your research questions, mention particular case studies/archives/methods, perhaps mention some of the literature your work will contribute to. Do not be too tentative here: if you find yourself writing ‘this study hopes to’, replace with ‘this study will’. Your actual paper can be more nuanced, but the abstract is your advert and is not the place for academic modesty.
As you PhD develops, individual chapters should become your focus, and you can test these out as conference papers. This kind of abstract will include more concrete details of the cases you will be discussing, but you should not lose track of the bigger questions. You should show that there is a gap in existing knowledge that you are set to fill. Mention some of the literature, and in describing your own project say ‘what has not yet been addressed/answered/fully considered is…’ You want your reader to have the sense that your work is not only interesting but urgent, that it must be heard at this particular event.
In general, the work you promise in an abstract is not something you have already done, but something which you will complete before the date of the conference. You should, therefore, try not to tie yourself down too much to particular findings: your sources may show something different in the end! You should be able to discuss evidence and research questions without restricting the final paper too much.
Assuming you are successful, use the abstract as part of planning your research. It is natural for your project to evolve, and people will not be surprised if your final paper differs in small ways from what you proposed, but you do want to at least be able to discuss all the issues raised in the abstract. Large conferences will share the abstracts with attendees so that they can choose which sessions to attend, and some will publish them online in promoting the conference. So read your abstract back from time-to-time to see if you are on track.
Promoting your work in just a few sentences is a strange art, and there is no better school than practice. Try writing one even if you don’t feel ready, and have a go at analysing some recent calls for papers to understand what the organisers were after.
What I have set out here is how I approach writing abstracts, but if others have tips or ideas we’d love to here from you in the comments below or @pubsandpubs on twitter! Our other posts on conferences include choosing your first conference, presenting at and attending your first conference, asking great questions, and organising your own conference.
Sam Grinsell is in the third year of his PhD in Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh. He has had abstracts accepted at – and rejected from – national and international conferences, and was on the organising committee for the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain’s Architectural History Workshop in 2018 and 2019. He is Deputy Chair of Pubs and Publications.
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