Writing a Successful Conference Abstract

by | Jul 18, 2017

If you’re used to writing long-form pieces likes books and dissertations, brief forms of writing like a conference abstract can pose particular challenges.

How do you effectively cram all your research, theories, and ideas into a few hundred words? How can you meaningfully convey, in so few characters, that your work is worthy of a larger platform? Here’s what you need to know to make your conference abstract shine.

Stick to the word limit

Conference abstracts can be as short as 250 words and rarely are longer than 750, so be sure to make each character count. If you don’t know where to start, ask yourself: What would a reader need to know to have a general understanding of your current project? This is good practice for figuring out how to quickly summarize your work and its stakes, a skill you will use again and again across your career, whether you stay in academia or not.

Be vigilant about keeping to the word limit to avoid getting a desk reject. Often word limits reflect the amount of space in a program, so following them reflects well on your professionalism and ability to read and follow instructions. Respecting word limits is also a way you respect the time and labor of conference organizers, recognizing that your ideas are not inherently more (or less) valuable than any other person submitting an abstract—in other words, don’t be a jerk.

Key questions

Trying to condense a big project into a few hundred words can feel overwhelming, but remember that a conference presentation should just be a bite-sized piece of that bigger project anyway. So start by jotting down responses to the following questions:

  • What is this paper’s main argument? (This is the most important question!)
  • What case studies or central texts does this paper examine?
  • What creative ways do you employ methods in this paper?
  • What scholarship does this paper engage with?
  • What are the stakes of this paper and the broader project?

Your abstract should get at most, if not all, of the above questions.

Think of the abstract as a road map of your work, laying out what your audience needs to know to get the gist of your project, or a sketch of where you want your project to go if it is still a work in progress.

Even if you are drafting a conference abstract on work that is new or unfinished, trying to get at some concise answer to the above questions can help organize your research and thinking—and prove beneficial beyond just your abstract.

Answer the “so what?” question

Most importantly, your abstract must convey the stakes of your project—why your research is important and worth sharing with your colleagues and the general public.

Your conference abstract must, unequivocally, clearly relay the stakes of your project. This is the “so what?” question. Think both about what drove you to undertake your research in the first place and about what someone without your particular interests or expertise might get out of your work.

You don’t need to literally spell out “this research matters because…” but your abstract should draw people in by making it clear that your work merits attention and engagement.

Know your audience

Key to making the most of an abstract’s minimal word count is knowing your audience (hint: this is the key to good writing of any kind).

Make sure you really understand the conference you’re applying to. Check out its website and review how it describes its mission, what disciplines it includes, and even how long it’s been around.

Also be sure to check out the theme of the specific (often annual) meeting to which you’re applying. Although not all conferences require you to tailor your project to their theme, most do.

With all of this in mind, explain the relationship between your project, the conference, and its current theme. This thematic link shouldn’t be forced but rather should be about presenting your research from an angle that makes it clear why it would be a good fit for this particular conference.

There is no one-size-fits-all conference abstract. Make sure you have drafted a synopsis of your project that speaks to the specific goals and objectives of the space in which you want to share it.

If you’re really struggling to bring an abstract together around the specific conference or theme, consider if it is the right space to share your work after all. If not, you can always find another conference that is a better fit.

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Alexandra Sastre is the associate director of campus communications at Swarthmore College.

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