Chances are, at this stage of your career you’ve written quite a bit already. From course papers to published articles, blog posts, public scholarship, and even professional emails, written communication requires you to organize your ideas to make them clear and accessible. Although long pieces (hello, dissertation!) require deft organization and clear a strong narrative arc, 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 or proposal shine.
Stick to the word limit
This goes without saying. 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?
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.
Remember too that it is good practice for you to know how to quickly synopsize your work and its stakes.
Trying to condense a long article or dissertation chapter into a few hundred words can feel overwhelming, so start by jotting down responses to the following questions:
- What key questions does your project ask and answer?
- What case studies or central texts does it examine?
- What is your main argument? (this is the most important question for any project)
- What creative ways do you employ methods in your project?
- What scholarship does your project engage with?
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 very 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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