For the most recent draft of this tutorial, please refer to the Google Document. TL; DR: Conference abstracts are a challenge, and one that almost any scholar can meet. Based on my extensive experience presenting at and organizing panels at a number of regional and national conferences on numerous topics, I wanted to share some of the lessons I’ve learned in how to put together a conference abstract. I outline the steps below, but here are the major points:
- Find your conference by knowing where you want to present, what you want to present, and what goal you have at this stage in your professional career.
- Cast a wide net–getting onto the panel you want is a numbers game, so the more panels for which you apply, the more likely you will get on at least one panel per year.
- Write your abstract as you would write a lesson plan: you must summarize an argument that is significant but within 15 minutes.
- Don’t let the CFP dictate your topic: the panel that is meant for you is one that has a wide enough range that will fit your topic.
- Adhere to the following template–the conference abstract has four major parts. (1) Identify your topic, (2) identify the author or authors you will discuss, (3) relate your presentation to the larger critical debate (name major scholars whose theories you definitely understand), and (4) state what is significant about your argument.
- If the CFP doesn’t prohibit attaching your CV, do so–make it relate to the panel’s topic, and let yourself stand out in it.
I have been fortunate to have extensive experience presenting at numerous conferences at a variety of levels in my studies–undergraduate to graduate to doctoral–at quite a number of regions throughout the United States, on a range of topics, and in a range of methodologies. My first conference presentation as a graduate student was at the Modern Language Association, the national conference for studies of literature and language; by January 2015, I will have given my fifth presentation at the MLA. In addition to standing behind the podium, I also have worked behind the scenes: I have led my own conference sessions, writing and re-writing calls for papers, choosing panelists, and working alongside co-organizers and co-chairs. All of this work led to my administrative work for the MLA’s regional division, the Northeast Modern Language Association, where as marketing coordinator I see the qualities that session panels have to gain approval by the organization, to attract well-written abstracts, and to develop into panels that speak to the concerns of both researchers and teachers in many topics and methodologies.
Based on my successes as presenter and organizer, I want to share some advice for how to draft an abstract in response to a conference CFP. I have broken down the process into a number of stages–how to pick your topic, whether you should write an abstract from scratch or develop one from a previous seminar paper, where to learn about local conferences and major ones in your field, how to make your abstract attractive to session organizers while sticking to your own approach and interests, and finally how to follow-up with organizers following rejection or, I hope, acceptance.
This document will be a work in progress—with updates made more frequently at Google Documents. To motivate updates, I depend on feedback from you readers. Based on your experiences at academic conferences, which qualities have made for successful abstracts? Which presentations came out the best? Which conferences were most satisfying?
Writing Your Abstract for Conferences in Literature, Languages, and the Humanities by Derek McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://dereksmcgrath.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/writing-your-abstract-for-conferences-in-the-literatures-languages-and-humanities/. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/17PoUcy5TcUNUSfNTz4SxCiDfaGyO38LTZpAAotc43OM/edit.
How Do I Find A Conference?
It is a numbers game: cast a wide net. Because you are looking at options available in your discipline, list servs and recommendations from peers may garner unexpected conference panels that surprisingly suit your research despite seemingly different topics and methods.
Define your plan: Are you seeking a particular conference, to present a particular paper, or to visit a particular place? Targeting particular conferences is important based on where you are in your career. If you have just recently entered graduate school, you likely want to save your money and will be targeting conferences locally. That being said, new graduate students should keep an eye on where the major conferences are in their field to plan schedules for when the conference hold its next meeting in the local area.
As you move further into your career and are preparing for post-degree job interviews, you will target those national and international associations that interview in your discipline. Many of these associations maintain consistent archives of previous conferences at their web sites, so use such archives to predict the dates of the year when CFPs are posted, when abstracts are due, and when the conferences take place. If you are presenting a particular paper, however, your attention may be less on saving money by presenting locally or at presenting at the big-name conferences.
Seek experience at public presentations, opportunities to expand your CV, or conversations with scholars in your field towards revising this presentation for publication. And there is nothing wrong with having an eye towards a conference just because it is in a location to which you want to travel: your scholastic engagement in the conference is not in competition with opportunities to get out of town, see new places, or have an excuse to visit friends and family while also giving a presentation along the way.
Find The Conference
- Stay up to date. Regardless whether your goals are defined by the stage of your career or the topic of your current research, you must always update yourself on which conferences are happening.
- Look at your own institution. Ask your adviser and colleagues–I presented at MLA because one of my undergraduate advisers (not even my thesis advisers, but one of my writing mentors who I had every semester in my four years of undergraduate education) emailed me the CFP and said “Submit.” Check your school’s list servs–I learned about the NeMLA because at least one professor or graduate student organized a session each year. Support your institution’s graduate student conferences–I gained excellent practice at presenting, developing my scholarship for varied audiences, and serving my local institution by submitting seminar papers, serving on planning committees, and chairing sessions. As well, you may gain on-site experience in managing your own department’s conference–which is vital towards developing your own panels at other conferences.
- Subscribe to list servs in your field. H-Net provides a wealth of resources. Search online for additional ones–not just through universities. Don’t overlook independent scholar networks developing on social media: you can find resources through Yahoo Groups, Twitter, WordPress, Tumblr, and Google Groups and Plus, and these organizers will have options to keep you up to date on new posts via email. Allow yourself to search online for groups developing–that’s how you find options in digital humanities, esoteric topics, and emerging major forces in research and teaching. Google Alerts can direct you to more sources.
- Visit CFP web sites. Notable options in the humanities include U Penn, CFP List, and Humanities First.
- Network. This practice takes time, but as you cultivate contacts at other colleges based on your interactions at conferences, in classes, and social gatherings, ask that these people remember you when they see panels related to your studies. And help them out, too: you will be on the minds of your peers when you direct them to opportunities they may not have considered, not only in conferences but in archives, new publications, and job openings.
Brainstorming a topic
Stumped? Present based on your seminar paper, even if it is not in your field. For graduate students, depending on your program, your semester’s course load may be full of classes that have little to do with your research interests, let alone your specialization or even your field. As a nineteenth-century United States scholar, many of my concurrent research and teaching interests in gender and popular culture were motivated by conferences presentations which developed from classes outside of my time period and outside of English literature courses–including courses on modernist English literature, translation studies, and mid- to late twentieth-century film. This work is much more applicable to emerging scholars rather than those already firmly specialized in a particular topic. Not every seminar paper will turn into a published article, be part of your dissertation, or develop into a book. Yet you should not pass up an opportunity to present.
Remember: the goal is to present at a conference once per year–once per semester if possible–and this is a numbers game, so you can’t be so choosy when you have just begun your academic career. (Money and time will be your enemies in actualizing this goal, so we’ll approach that problem in a moment.) Unless you have confirmed that this year’s conference presentation is in your specialization, you should develop your seminar paper into a conference paper. As well, your professors and other mentors will acknowledge whether your seminar paper is sufficient for a conference, so have some faith in their guidance. If these mentors don’t openly encourage you when they give you back your grade, ask them directly and get their feedback. Even if these teachers are hesitant to direct you to develop the paper into a presentation, unless they are adamantly against the plan, you may benefit from this presentation. Depending on the conference, a seminar paper outside of your area allows you to practice your presentation skills in front of audiences that may not be your most immediate colleagues in the future. While such presentations may not be as helpful at major conferences in your discipline (presenting outside of your field at the Modern Language Association may be a distraction from your other studies in language and literature), and while you may not want to include such presentations on your CV, the practice is sufficient.
And who knows?–you may make a surprising contact outside of your field, especially important as the people interviewing you for jobs are likely outside of your research interests, as they expect you to fill some need at their department. Develop your paper based on your teaching. While your seminar essays for class and the articles you are drafting for publication are strong pieces of scholarship, it is difficult to condense such information to a 10- to 20-minute presentation.
As well, you are presenting to scholars who will be listening to you. Although they may follow along with a handout or projected presentation, they won’t get to re-read any confusing sentences in your presentation, any footnotes about the obscure texts you analyze, or definitions for obscure phrases–all such relevant information must be presented clearly when you speak aloud.
If you can talk about your topic with students–high schoolers, undergraduates, graduate students–then you are on your way to a potentially effective presentation. Teaching allows us to time our presentations: we have a set number of minutes when presenting a lecture or engaging students in discussion, and we must present the information as clearly as possible when we speak. As well, developing a pedagogical paper is effective on job applications and within your department. As numerous research positions still depend on scholars acting as teachers, your CV should demonstrate not only your effectiveness in the classroom with students but your engagement in current debates held at numerous conferences regarding successful and new teaching practices.
Writing the abstract
Pick your topic and write the abstract first before you examine the CFP. If you have identified which essay or article you want to develop into a presentation, write the abstract first.
Don’t let the CFP dictate your topic. Many papers just will not fit the panel–and that’s okay, because, again this is a numbers game. If you are not able to develop an abstract that adequately summarizes your topic and its significance to the current debate in your field, then you will not be able to develop this presentation at any conference, let alone ones that may reject you immediately. Make the abstract stand on its own; you will have ample opportunities to revise it around different conferences.
Adhere to the following template; the conference abstract has four major parts.
(1) Identify your topic
(2) Identify the author or authors you will discuss
(3) Relate your presentation to the larger critical debate (name major scholars whose theories you definitely understand)
(4) State what is significant about your argument.
Nothing stops you from revising this template (move the sections around, elaborate on some sections more than others), but in general, every conference abstract address these four criteria. After all, every conference paper must address them, too.
Therefore, treat the abstract as an outline to your overall presentation. But don’t over-do it. Many of us are tempted to cite long quotations from our primary texts or from major theorists, whereas a short quotation and a citation is sufficient. Some of us obsess whether to include a works cited or footnote whenever we quote, but as this is only an abstract, proper citation rules are less consequential (especially as more conferences include strict word counts and are moving to online form submissions rather than emailed submissions). You only want to include the most relevant information: the most important passage (or, really, small set of words) from the primary text; and the most important study that your presentation responds to (whether because you argue through the methodology of that scholar, or because you are responding against that person).
As well, you want to present a strong argument but not give away your entire idea: academia is a risky place to over-share your ideas, and you don’t want to have a thoughtful insight taken by another scholar who presents and publishes before you do. Balance a strong thesis statement against an open discussion. Presentations that have all the answers must be tempered with a certain amount of flexibility–this is a conference panel in which to share ideas in a post-presentation Q&A (or even a roundtable), not just your spot to pontificate for 20 minutes.
As you likely are presenting not because you have already published this argument but because you are seeking feedback towards revising this draft for publication, approach the abstract with a degree of discursiveness. Revise, revise, revise. Share the abstract with your professor and anyone else who you know presents frequently at conferences. Seek feedback from people inside and outside of your field–the first set will identify flaws in your argument and whether your contribution satisfactorily fills gaps in the debate; the second set are your audience members at these conferences, and while you may not be as invested in disagreements they have with your argument and methodology, you want to make sure they understand your proposed presentation.
Now you’re ready to respond to the CFP.
Read the CFP critically for key words. Notice any major authors, theories, and methodologies–this information can indicate how flexible the session will be towards the work that you produce. If you are familiar with these keywords, consider their applicability to your own research; if you are not familiar, then you may find yourself so lost upon presenting at this panel that your paper will not be a sufficient fit. If you are obstinate about presenting at this panel, however, educate yourself on these keywords: a search for any one of them in the major database for your discipline (the MLA International Bibliography for language and literary studies, for example) will give you enough content from the past five years to skim (don’t overwhelm yourself reading it all).
It’s not that you want to name every keyword in your abstract–you just want to make sure that you respond generally to one of the major ideas that this abstract addresses. I have found some of the most exciting presentations developed when the panel had a clear, specific focus but were flexible in addressing the many approaches and topics available.
Supplemental materials with your abstract
Should I submit my CV with my abstract? Add your CV only as instructed–or, only when advantageous.
If the rules do not prohibit you from submitting your CV, then do so–if you have an impressive record, brag away! However, keep your CV as brief as possible, generally no more than two pages.
Focus on only those accomplishments that speak to both the topic and the format of this conference panel: significant conference experiences, publications, awards, minimal contact information, and teaching only as related to the topic and format of the conference.
What do you mean “significant” conference experiences? Practice discretion. Which of your presentations and chaired sessions are related by topic or field to the CFP? Which of the sessions were at the most famous conferences in your field? A small conference focused specifically on a narrow topic may be more impressive than citing your presentation to a national conference on a topic unrelated to your CFP. Do not bother listing your references, and delete any contact information except your institution (undergraduate and graduate students: your current institution; adjunct and other professors: your current institution; independent scholars: where you received your most recent degree), your email address, and maybe your phone number.
Unless the session is pedagogical, or unless you have taught specialized single-topic courses related to the session’s topic, delete the entire list of your teaching experience (including teaching assistance).
And keep something in your CV that stands out–something so surprising yet impressive that allows your abstract to stand out among all the ones received: a major conference where you presented, the most eye-catching title of your publications, an award especially notable or especially related to your presentation’s topic. For example, my dissertation is on nineteenth-century United States literature, which helps ground my overall research interests in a particular time period. I have written and presented extensively on topics of race, gender, and sexuality in the time period in numerous literary forms. I show my credentials as a researcher and teacher in this topic because I’ve participated in a seminar at the American Antiquarian Society, I’ve presented on pedagogy at New York University, and I’ve had multiple presentations at the MLA. But I also make sure to mention I present and publish on popular culture’s engagement with that time period and with gender studies–in animation, comics, film, and new media–because I am passionate about those topics as well, they relate to my research on gender in the nineteenth century, and I enjoy teaching these texts as can clarify important ideas in the literature and research practices my students practice in class. By identifying my interests to the conference organizers, I have had exciting discussions with those conference organizers because they remember me specifically for my research on Nathaniel Hawthorne but alsofor my writing about Lady Gaga (as associated with my teaching of the works of Edgar Allan Poe), Captain America (as a character indicative of changes in American culture’s understanding of third-wave feminist and postfeminist approaches to masculinity), and Soul Eater (because it’s awesome). (If applicable, I can add that I’ve cosplayed as Dr. Horrible at a pop culture conference’s Joss Whedon sing-along, too–it’s a fun icebreaker.)
Condense the number of pages to your CV in all other ways possible while maintaining a legible document: do not use a font size less than 12, and use a readable font (a Serif such as Times New Roman, a Sans Serif such as Arial). If you need to save space, there are options you can practice (Arial is a larger font than Times New Roman; you can’t change spacing or margins without the document looking odd, but you can trim from those lines that have only a few words each).
Submit, Follow-Up, and Network
Congratulations–you have finished your abstract, now you can submit!
Submit your abstract before the deadline: As a presenter on and an organizer of conference panels, I can confirm that many abstracts are submitted at the last minute. Because most conferences accept submissions via email or online only, submit during hours when you know you have Internet access: you do not want to finish an abstract late at night, lose Internet, and can’t find any cafe with wireless opened. Be aware that your organizers may be in a different time zone–for sessions in North America, you’re likely safe assuming that the conference proposal meant Eastern Standard Time, so for Pacific Time Zone submitters, pay attention to the deadline.
Make a contact: Every person you email is a scholar you may meet in the future–so be respectful. The advice I’ve heard repeatedly is that you should introduce yourself to any new scholar as if they were a major name in the field: don’t be rude. There are big names organizing panels; there are assistant professors trying to get tenure organizing panels; there are adjuncts and independent scholars organizing panels; there are scared graduate students just hoping their panel will be accepted and attract panelists (and I in no way say that last one from any experience–at all–at all). You are in an exciting position to meet a range of scholars, and you want to foster that contact. When you write, address the organizer with respect: when in doubt, “Professor” before their last name is the way to go, including to independent scholars and graduate students.
Follow-up: Many conferences list in online calendars when panel organizers are required to email all panelists with acceptance or rejection. If the deadline has passed, you are acting appropriately when asking for an update: politely say that you wanted to confirm whether there were any updates regarding the panel’s setup.
Confirm your participation quickly, don’t agree to more panels than you should, accept rejection well, and make yourself available in case of panel openings: If you know that this panel is where you want to be, and if you know you want to present at this conference, and if you are pretty sure you can afford the trip, confirm that you accept to present within 48 hours–you want to show that you are interested in this presentation. Otherwise, you must use those 48 hours to make your plans. If you are hesitant to accept because of the cost and time to prepare, we’ll get to that.
But if you are not sure about presenting at this panel, balance the pros and cons. If you have no other commitments to present at other panels, I say go for it–you need to present once per year. If you really don’t want to put in the time or the money, however, you can turn down the offer, especially if you have other commitments. Speaking of which, remember that many conferences have specific rules about how many sessions on which you may present: you likely can participate on only one or two sessions (some conferences don’t count chairing as participating, other conferences do; some conferences distinguish presentations to creative sessions or roundtables as not counting to the one- to two-session rule, other conferences don’t).
Keep track of how many sessions to which you have applied to any one conference in one year. I was at one conference where I was lucky enough one year to present at two panels at the MLA–and to turn down two other ones at the MLA that same year due to conference rules. Have a calendar that shows when you submitted to which panels; have a calendar showing when you have received acceptance or rejection from each panel; once you have information from all sessions, make your final decision on which ones you will accept and which ones you will reject. If you do know that you have to be on one of those sessions, however, confirm your acceptance as soon as possible.
Above all else, do not lead your panel organizers on–if you don’t know whether you can participate because of other commitments to that same conference, be honest from the beginning. If the organizers have a deadline when you must accept or reject their offer, do answer before the deadline, and do specify that you have other opportunities to present. Organizers are stressed to make sure that they have the minimum number of participants: from my experience on the organizing side, we try to include the maximum number of participants for just this reason, so I hope that your organizers are doing likewise and, if they can’t have you present, they will understand yet encourage you to attend their session as an audience member, because they value your participation in some form.
And speaking of your participation in some form: if you are rejected, do acknowledge the email with a kind thank you, and offer your services to the panelists for anything reasonable–if they need a back-up, if they need a chair, or if they need an audience member. Be a kind colleague, not because rejection doesn’t suck, but because you were interested in this panel, you will gain something from the presenters’ topics and discussion, and you want to foster these contacts.
Leave yourself open for opportunities to be a back-up panelist. I have organized panels that had too many excellent submissions, and I made sure to advocate the conference for a second panel. I identified the four panelists I wanted on my first panel and confirmed their participation; I then identified the four of the remaining panelists that I wanted on a second panel, and I confirmed their tentative participation in an as un-yet confirmed session, and I was honest that the second session was proposed but that there was no promise that it would be accepted. Accept the panelists’ goals with grace: many will want to confirm their participation because they were excited about your panel and want to be in that city for that conference; those who want a stronger commitment will be blunt, and you will act respectful to them in order to foster a collegiality for future opportunities in shared research and potential collaboration at the same institution.
I’m accepted–but how do I afford it?
You want to present at one conference per year, one per semester if possible: you want to keep your presentation skills honed, you want to make new contacts each year, you want to add to your CV, and you want to get your name out there. As well, you want to engage with scholars in your field and outside of your institution so you may improve your research, find new information, and motivate yourself to write that idea you had into a proto-draft for a future publication. All of that being said, you may not have the time or the money. Attending local conferences is the easiest answer. Attending conferences where you can sleep on your friend’s or relative’s couch is a potential (though potentially uncomfortable) option. As geography limits you, you must do everything else to overcome this obstacle:
Save money now. Treat the conference as a chance to get out of town or away from your department–and a chance for you and anyone in your family to get a vacation. Email conference organizers about opportunities to work at the conference (to pay down conference fees and related costs). Visit the conference web site and email its representatives to ask about travel grants for independent scholars, new faculty, and graduate students. Ask your professors, classmates, and coworkers about which opportunities your department and institution provide for reimbursement.
Some institutions, especially for faculty, provide grants before you are even accepted to present–so apply for that funding now before your colleagues do. If you don’t get accepted to present, you may still be reimbursed after you attend the conference (but before you pay for the conference, confirm with your institution that, indeed, the funding is not contingent on your presentation, only on your attendance). Or, in the worst case, the institution budgeted for that money, so you just will never apply for the reimbursement because you never went. Most institutions, however, require you pay first, attend first, keep receipts, and submit paperwork with original receipts before you are reimbursed. Again, save your money now, and cut on expenses while you are traveling.
Budget your money. Many conferences are at the city’s most expensive downtown area; the food and drinks at the hotel, on the train, at the rest stop, and at the airport are going to be overpriced. Unless the conference provides meals, you will be hunting for cheaper fare–so search online now for inexpensive but nutritious and tasty meals. Confirm whether the conference or your hotel provides free breakfast; if you are packing light, you can pack a few cheaper meals or at least nutritious snacks to power through some portions of the conference. As well, you want to save some money for certain unavoidable expenses: you will be getting meals and drinks with colleagues at local restaurants that will eat into your budget, you will be tipping hotel employees, food preparers, and waiters well so not to be a rude tourist, and you will need to have cash on hand when the restaurant lacks an ATM or the cab driver does not accept credit cards.
Some final words
There is a lot more to discuss–how to handle a conference presentation, how to survive the experience–so here are some quick pointers, long from now since you likely have at least a month before you give your presentation:
Read aloud multiple times. Type your presentation in 12-point font, double-spaced, one side per page. Read aloud in front of a mirror to force yourself to practice eye contact (and as you read aloud repeatedly, you’ll start memorizing portions of your presentation).
The way you write on paper is different from how you write to present–and it helps to improve your writing. If you can read something aloud, it is likely sufficient writing: it is clear, you can pronounce the words, and you make sense. Read aloud once just to get a sense of the words on the page, to identify spots where the sentences are too long to catch a breath, and where you made typos. Read again aloud and mark up the paper–change punctuation for pauses (add commas for shorter pauses, add periods for long pauses, and add dashes to rush certain passages). Go back to your computer, and type in the edits. Continue to cycle through re-writes and reading aloud to get the presentation where you want it to be. Most conference presentations are 15 to 20 minutes, which is roughly five to ten double-spaced single-sided pages in 12-point font. Some of us read faster than others; slow down your pace when speaking. Some of us are slower readers than others; cut pages, and keep the cut content written down as notes to refer to during the question and answer session–better to have much more to talk about during the Q&A than to give a presentation that is too long and hence cut off early by the session organizer.
Stay healthy and comfortable While traveling and attending the conference, stay healthy: drink water, get the nutrients you need from the food available. Don’t make drastic changes to your habits–consult your physician before any changes to your lifestyle, and that includes all substances you put into your body. (If you depend on caffeine, now may not be the time to cut off coffee and soda.) Before you present, handle all bodily functions first and re-hydrate as much as necessary: you want to be comfortable standing or sitting before your audience. If necessary after a meal or snack, brush your teeth and floss well ahead of time to have clean teeth but to get the taste of mint toothpaste out of your mouth.
Follow the rules Don’t be rude at someone else’s conference–you’re too mature for that kind of behavior, you are among colleagues, and you want to treat others as you would want to be treated. That means do not go over the time limit: the panel organizers are under enough stress fitting in multiple papers and a question and answer session into an hour and 15-minute time block, and they don’t have time for you to turn your 15-minute presentation into a 30-minute narcissistic fit.
Enjoy! Don’t let the jerks get you down–for many of us, if you can survive the worst participants in any conference, you can handle the rest of it. Not everyone will be polite; keep being the smart but friendly scholar you are. Go to the panels and events that you want to; don’t let peer pressure dictate where you go. If you want to use your time away from your own session to see the city or stay in your hotel room, do so–this conference is your time, and you will have time at your own panel to make your contacts, to represent your institution well, and to participate in the intellectual discussion with your peers. Now finish your abstract, present your paper, and be awesome!
Writing Your Abstract for Conferences in the Literatures, Languages, and Humanities by Derek McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at https://dereksmcgrath.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/writing-your-abstract-for-conferences-in-the-literatures-languages-and-humanities/. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/17PoUcy5TcUNUSfNTz4SxCiDfaGyO38LTZpAAotc43OM/edit.