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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!

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
ivpiter
Oct. 8th, 2002 05:22 pm (UTC)
So, what you're saying is... Cacciaguida was a Maori beet farmer who upset a few sacred cows? Maybe you should give a paper at a conference about him. I'm sure it'll get accepted. :)
owlfish
Oct. 8th, 2002 06:55 pm (UTC)
Exactly. Hmm... that's a good idea. Dante would've been delighted to know he was descended from a Maori beet farmer. Imagine the Divine Comedy as a Polynesian farming manual...

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita
Mi ritrovai per una selva brilliante
perche la via dritta era piena di bietole...

(Sorry, got carried away there: as this version of the Inferno begins... "In the middle of the path of our life/ I found myself in a brightly-lit forest/ because the correct way was full of beets.")
ivpiter
Oct. 8th, 2002 07:32 pm (UTC)
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
I will not tease literary people.
Especially multilingual ones.
owlfish
Oct. 8th, 2002 07:49 pm (UTC)
Eeep. It's okay, I don't mind!

I guess you don't want to see the whole 100 canto version of The Maori Turnip Farmer's Divine Comedy? I don't know any Maori, but I could learn some just for this!
owlfish
Oct. 9th, 2002 06:44 am (UTC)
Proof my Italian really isn't all that good
I realized as I was falling asleep last night that I'd used the wrong word. "brilliante" should be "brillante" and even then doesn't quite communicate the right concept, since it means more shiny/brilliant than well-lit/brilliant. "luminosa" is much tbe better option as far as concept goes.

On the other hand, as far as rhyme scheme goes, "brillante" or some other word entirely fits much better.
littleowl
Oct. 9th, 2002 11:58 am (UTC)
I am very pleased that I actually understood all but two words of that. *sparkle*
saffronjan
Oct. 8th, 2002 06:19 pm (UTC)
Don't take this the wrong way, but...
... but I detect some very deep-seated beet issues here. Were you troubled by beets as a child? Abstracts about beets? Abstract beets? The abstractions of beat poets?

You'll feel better if you just face the beets head-on... I know whereof I speak.

Veggie-phobes, unite!
owlfish
Oct. 8th, 2002 06:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Don't take this the wrong way, but...
How did you know??

Actually, I'm just indifferent to beets. There were 2 of them on my plate at dinner on Saturday and I ate one of them. I'm not too keen on brussel sprouts though. And whether or not they're vegetables, I've never been too excited about most ways of preparing beans.

At least I'm more of a fan of veggies than my boyfriend is! By comparison, I'm practically veggie-philic!
sioneva
Oct. 9th, 2002 10:29 am (UTC)
Re: Don't take this the wrong way, but...
Curiouser and curiouser...I don't like beets, detest brussels sprouts and heartily dislike green beans.

Graham's much, much, MUCH worse about it than I am though!

Must be an England thing ;)
saffronjan
Oct. 9th, 2002 05:58 pm (UTC)
Jan shares too much information
If I ever tasted a beet, I might find that I loved them, but I simply cannot bring myself to eat a vegetable that stains the china pink and can be used to make something with a name as ugly as 'borscht'.

Pink=bad. Vermeer userpic=good.
owlfish
Oct. 9th, 2002 07:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Jan shares too much information
Plain beets may not be my favorite type of vegetable, but I admit, I really really do like a good borscht. It's also the tastiest form of cabbage I've yet tasted. Two vegetables made wonderful all in one bowlful.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )