S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

On Abstracts

After 3 and a half hours of debating the merits and demerits of 55 different abstracts, I feel I have learned at least a few things about writing abstracts. Perhaps. Here's a sampling off of the top of my head. For the noble cause of discretion, all my examples have been modified beyond genre and recognition. None of the proposals resemble any of my examples.

- If the languages of the conference are English and French, don't submit your proposal in Maori unless you've first cleared it with the conference organizers.

- Give some sense of what you're actually going to discuss in your paper. Don't just write a miniature history of, say, the development of beet farming in Finland. Give some hint as to what your take is, what you will argue, how this relates to the existing literature... something... anything. (Although actually, beet farming in Finland would be a topic so radically different from everything else actually proposed that. hey, I'd've voted for it!)

- Don't presume everyone has read your crucial bit of literature and knows its cast of characters. Don't start your proposal... "Cacciaguida's interactions in the Divine Comedy have been insufficiently studied. The words used to describe him deserve better attention from scholars." A great many people have never heard of Cacciaguida, let alone know why he matters.

- If you're going to cite literature in your abstract, don't make it a common textbook. The Norton Anthology of English Literature isn't the pre-eminent scholarly guide to obscure poetry, and if it is, then that's a good argument - that you should mention - as to why a full-length study of whatever it is is justified. Not a major source to argue against.

- Clarity in writing is a Really Good Thing.

- Don't submit your grant or dissertation proposal for a conference proposal. You won't have time to tell us the complete history of Sacred Cows in Medieval India in a mere 20 minutes.

- Some papers would be fabulous if given by a senior professor who has worked on the problem for his/her entire life, but would likely come off as less satisfying when given by a junior member of the profession. (As least, as it seems like it would be from the abstract.) This mostly applies to big topics: a critical theory of world-wide beet farming, for example.

- If you're a senior professor, then your abstract will be turned down by a conference intended for graduate student papers.

- Don't submit an assigned undergraduate paper topic as a graduate student conference abstract. Or anything that might read like one. It won't be accepted if half of the committee wrote on exactly the same topic when they were undergraduates.

- Have a native speaker proofread your abstract; a native speaker, that is, of whatever language your abstract needs to be in. This is especially true for anyone not applying in their own native language. The Maori dependent clauses, however clear they seem to you, will only confuse the English reader and they just won't be able to due the paper the justice it deserves.

- Just because one conference doesn't accept your paper, doesn't mean it wouldn't be fabulous at some other conference. All conferences have different mandates and are looking for different things. (Try that beet farming paper at the Medieval Agriculture Conference instead. Or even just a different survey conference.)

- Corollary: Just because your paper isn't accepted at a conference, doesn't mean it wasn't a fabulously good one. There just wasn't room for 18 papers on beet farming when there were only 24 slots available.

- If your paper is accepted, do try to go and give the paper! Have pity on all those eager abstract readers who spent 9 months (or whatever) looking forward to your paper. They might never have another chance to hear a paper on your topic and might really want to!
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