Writing an abstract for a conference paper

Fellow Grad Students: The season for writing conference abstracts is upon us.

While most people not involved in academia continue to believe that for professional scholars the summer months are a halcyon period of sipping mai tais on the beach and bungee jumping in South America, the truth is that while yes, you should take a break or two, in actuality this is the period during which you should be working on current projects, conducting field and archival research, and setting your research trajectory for the next year. For this last item, you’ll want to identify and submit abstracts to conferences that fit with your research interests, in order to present your research and get feedback on it. Because many conference organizers are already hard at work planning next year’s scholarly meetings, now is a good time either to learn or to review how to write and submit an abstract for an academic conference. Those due dates are looming–in my case, the abstracts for the conferences and symposiums at which I hope to present are all due by August, which means I’m already drafting them.

There are just a few things you need to keep in mind in order to be successful in this venture. First, you need to follow the stated guidelines for abstract length and accompanying materials. This should be common sense, but as someone who has successfully organized a number of session proposals for various conferences, I am still astonished at how many people don’t follow the instructions laid out in the CFP. Remember–those guidelines are there for a reason, usually because the conference organizers have requested certain materials, prepared a certain way. All things equal, I’m going to pass on your contribution if the others submitting abstracts for my session have followed the guidelines in the CFP, because it makes things easier for me and because it gives our session the best chance of being accepted for the conference. The rest of this post breaks down how to write a successful conference abstract.

Accompanying Materials

Short bio. If a CFP asks for an abstract and brief bio, they want the short statement that might accompany a published chapter. My current brief bio reads as follows: Melissa Ridley Elmes is a doctoral candidate in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her dissertation looks at feasts as sites of productive violence which are essential to the narrative in medieval British texts. She has published on Chaucer, Arthuriana, and medievalism.  That’s it–name, affiliation, department and degree, thesis/dissertation topic if you have one, one or two recent publications if you have them. You can substitute in research interests if you don’t yet have publications. For instance, my earlier version of the brief bio (prior to publications and dissertating) looked like this: Melissa Ridley Elmes is a doctoral student in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research interests include Arthuriana, Chaucer, violence, and women and gender studies in medieval texts.

The brief bio should be 3-4 lines long, tops.

CV. If a CFP asks for an abstract and CV, they don’t want or need your full CV. Have handy a shortened version of your CV which lists your name and contact information, academic affiliation and degrees, publications or manuscripts in progress if you have them, previous conference activity if you have it, and academic/teaching experience. You do not need to include service, grants, awards, and similar. They’re not judging you as a job candidate; they’re really just looking for evidence that you know what you are doing and can successfully deliver a conference paper.

The CV accompanying your abstract should be no longer than 3 pages; ideally, 2 in length.

Writing the Abstract

You have no control ultimately over whether or not your abstract is accepted, and if it isn’t, usually there was nothing you could do to alter that outcome–either your paper didn’t fit the session or conference well enough, or it didn’t fit as well with the other papers submitted for the panel, or the other submissions were from big-name scholars who promise to draw a crowd, or any of a half-dozen other reasons. There are, however, a few things you can do to ensure your abstract is competitive.

First and foremost, make sure that your abstract targets the session topic and theme. It is amazing to me how many times I have received abstracts for a session that don’t explicitly link the subject of the proposed paper with the session topic. It may seem very clear to you that your paper fits the session, but you need to specifically address the session topic in your abstract to ensure that the organizers can see that as well.

Next, write the abstract as though the paper is already a reality, even if you haven’t written a word yet. Don’t tell me, “this paper will examine….,” “In this paper, I will argue…..” or anything like that. Lead off with a focal sentence underscoring the main point of your paper, then describe where it stands in the bigger picture of conversations in the field/subject, followed by an “I argue,” “I contend,” “I examine” statement that explains exactly what your paper does. Within this material, it should be clear how your paper fits with the session topic.

You need to make sure you meet the stated word count. If they asked for 300 words, don’t assume that 500 will be okay. You do not have to deliver your whole paper in the abstract–you just have to say what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it fits in the session and the bigger field conversations. You should be able to do this in under 300 words. Begin by cutting out titles of secondary materials and reducing the number of named scholars with whom you are agreeing or disagreeing to 1-2; cut out all extra adjectives and adverbs; shorten and combine sentences. If you still can’t get it down to the requested word count, have someone else read your abstract and help you make cuts. (incidentally, this is good practice for writing the dissertation paragraph for your CV when you go on the job market).

And finally, presentation matters–make sure your name, affiliation, and the title of your paper, are all included at the top of your abstract.

For those who are brand-new to this and feeling a little unsure about how to structure an abstract, here are three examples of successful abstracts I’ve written  (i.e., abstracts that were accepted for conference presentations) that can serve as blueprints. Because I’m in the humanities, these might not be as helpful to those in the sciences and you’ll want to Google examples of science abstracts or have your advisor look over yours to make sure it meets conventions for your field.

Example one, accepted for an International Arthurian Society-sponsored session on monstrosity in the Arthurian tradition at the International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo:

He Dreams of Dragons: Alchemical Imagery in the Dream Vision of King Arthur

Melissa Ridley Elmes, UNC-Greensboro

Monsters in any text are present in order to show us something we might not otherwise have noted; they are, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has famously written, markers of change and harbingers of category crisis. In each of the major Arthurian texts of the medieval English tradition – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Layamon’s Brut, and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur – the key scene of Arthur’s dream vision just prior to his defeat of the Giant of Mont-St-Michel features a duel in the sky between a bear and a dragon, in which the dragon is ultimately the victor. The dream is variously interpreted by other characters within the texts as a sign of Arthur’s imminent victory against some yet-undisclosed foe, while Arthur interprets it as a battle between himself and the Emperor of Rome. It is also generally read by scholars as allegory. I argue that in addition to being an allegorical dream vision, this is a moment of alchemical transformation. With each successive iteration the dream is expanded to include more imagery of a decidedly alchemical nature, so that what begins as the fairly straightforward presentation of an allegorical dream vision transforms into a richly-woven psychological portrait of the creation of a King out of a Man: as the dragon claims victory and incinerates the bear, the individual man is transformed at an atomic level into a king. In this paper, I explore the development of the dream vision presented in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HRB into this alchemically-informed moment in the works of Layamon and Sir Thomas Malory, and posit that reading this moment as an alchemical transformation gives us a different lens through which to view literary kingmaking in the medieval British tradition.

Example two, Accepted for presentation at the Southeastern Medieval Association conference:

(DRAFT VERSION): Unmoveable Feast: The Feast as a Rhetorical and Cultural Marker in Two Middle English Romances

Melissa Ridley Elmes, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

Feasts are public events comprised of equal parts spectacle and largesse. They are the single most important social activity in which human beings participate in collective fashion. No feast ends as it began; as spaces of chronological and temporal interruption and the gathering of people from many different backgrounds, they inevitably become spaces of change which move the action into a different direction, either for everyone involved or for an individual or smaller group of individuals present at the event. Because of this, when feasts appear in literary texts, it is not merely for the purposes of entertaining or pleasing the audience: they are important moments of interruption and change in the narrative. In this paper, I will argue that in fact, feasts serve as both a rhetorical and a cultural marker of change and transformation, as shown in two representative Middle English romances [I haven’t decided which two yet – I am pretty sure The Tale of Emare, and I thought maybe one of the Gawain romances.] The location of the feasts in time and space both in the text, itself, and within the narrative space contained in that text, is a rhetorically significant moment that signals a meaningful shift in the story. Culturally, feasts are public markers of the intersection between individual behavior and social mores, are particularly problematic spaces concerning the construction and upholding of chivalric ideology, and therefore signal a moment of interruption, change, and ultimately, transformation for the knight.

(FINAL VERSION): (Un)moveable Feast: The Feast as a Rhetorical and Cultural Marker in Two Middle English Romances

Melissa Ridley Elmes, University of North Carolina – Greensboro

Feasts are public events comprised of equal parts spectacle and largesse. They are the single most important social activity in which human beings participate in collective fashion. No feast ends as it began; as spaces of chronological and temporal interruption and the gathering of people from many different backgrounds, they inevitably become spaces of change which move the action into a different direction, either for everyone involved or for an individual or smaller group of individuals present at the event. Because of this, when feasts appear in literary texts, it is not merely for the purposes of entertaining or pleasing the audience: they are important narrative moments of interruption and change. The location of the feasts in time and space both in the physical text, itself, and within the narrative space contained in that text, is a rhetorically significant moment that signals a meaningful shift in the story. Culturally, feasts are public markers of the intersection between individual behavior and social mores and particularly problematic spaces concerning the construction and upholding of chivalric ideology; feasts therefore signal a moment of interruption, change, and ultimately, transformation for the knight. My paper examines the ways in which feasts serve as both a rhetorical and a cultural marker of change and transformation in two representative Middle English romances: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Lai of Emare.

Example three, accepted for an International Association of Robin Hood Studies-sponsored session for the MLA annual convention (the session, sadly, did not make, but even getting an abstract accepted for an MLA session is an achievement):

Acting Out(law): Feasts, Outlawry, and Identity Construction in Two Shakespearean Comedies

Melissa Ridley Elmes, University of North Carolina Greensboro

Medieval literary outlaw figures draw attention to increasing socio-political uncertainties; and the call-and-response development of Anglo-Norman kingship, a rising mercantile class, and the English popular outlaw tales has been well-documented by scholars like Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, and Alex Kaufman. Most scholarship on English literary outlaws concentrates on “historical outlaws”—i.e. Gamelyn and Fouke le Fitz Waryn—or the late medieval ballads and seventeenth and eighteenth century broadsides featuring Robin Hood. This paper considers a very different literary source not often associated with the outlaw tradition—two comedies by William Shakespeare—bringing the lens to bear on turn of the sixteenth- to the seventeenth- century drama, a time period and genre rarely discussed within the larger conversation of the outlaw tradition.

In all of Shakespeare’s corpus of plays, two—Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1589-1592) and As You Like It (c. 1599-1600)—make explicit reference to the Robin Hood legend in conjunction with outlaw figures on the stage in the production itself, thus calling the audience’s attention to this particular outlaw tradition as a means of characterization and story development. As a dramatist, Shakespeare’s contrast of the outlaw with the nobleman is performed through dialogue and indirect characterization, primarily achieved through careful and constant juxtaposition of images of outlawry, such as the Robin Hood tales, with images of nobility, such as feasting. However, Shakespeare does not simply contrast the two, he intermingles them so that we see a clear ambivalence concerning identity construction and acceptance of social change. This paper considers how Shakespeare uses the figure of the outlaw, the figure of the nobleman, and the image of the feast in a call-and-response format similar to that found in the development of outlaw tales in the medieval tradition in order to create a space for audiences of these plays to examine such social instabilities and, I argue, in fact to make a case for accepting the reformed outlaw figure as a potentially positive influence on society, a move only made acceptable by these plays’ classification as comedies.

 (Edited to include the final draft of example two–in the earlier posting, I only included the draft version of the second example, which included notes to my advisor, whom I consulted in developing the abstract. The final draft now also included in the post shows how I altered the abstract prior to submitting.)

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
This entry was posted in Conferences and Professional Development Opportunities and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Writing an abstract for a conference paper

  1. Lucy Mackintosh says:

    Perfect timing Melissa, I’m currently sitting down to write an abstract and was needing some inspiration, which your blog definitely provides. Thanks for the post!

  2. Tom says:

    Abstracts have fixed length requirements. So I looked at a possible journal and looked at an article with it’s abstract. Lets say it was 12 lines. I typed one of the lines of text from the abstract and tweaked margin settings and font size until it fit just like the one I was looking at. Then I said, I can type 12 lines of text like the one I just typed and that is my maximum. Then I wrote text and then changed things by deleting or adding. But I had a template for length. Another source which I can’t remember now said don’t include any words from the title of the article in the abstract. I did the same thing for writing text that went on a iron historical marker. There was only so much room for words and characters that would be cast on the marker. I looked at a marker for and example and followed the same process above. Then I knew how much space to work with as far as length.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      This is a really interesting technical solution to the length issue–thanks for sharing with us!

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