What I learned from running a conference about writing abstracts

Bethan and I have just sent our acceptances and rejections of abstracts for #PopSex15, and I’ve been thinking about what the process of organising a conference has taught me about pitching to one. So here are a few tips on writing abstracts for academic conferences.

Be very clear what your paper’s contribution is. The argument you’re making and the evidence you’re using should be obvious from your abstract. There are different ways to do this. I tend to structure my abstracts in three paragraphs. The first goes a bit like this: “In this paper I will [show/argue X] using [data set Y] and [methodology Z].” The second gives some context appropriate to the audience I’m pitching to. So if I’m pitching to a gender & sexuality conference and talking about fanfiction, I might explain what fanfiction is. If I’m pitching to a fan studies conference, I might explain why I’m using fanfiction to study sexual consent. The third paragraph then expands on the first while building on the context I’ve provided in the second to give more detail of exactly what my paper will do and how, and maybe why this is interesting. You can provide the context first but the conference organiser may turn out to be familiar with it, in which case you might bore them. You can provide some bullet points titled “Key Points”. Whatever you do, don’t get too bogged down in detail: be clear (and brave) with your argument.

Pitch to the Call for Papers. The CfP will tell you a lot about what the organisers are interested in. Specific keywords and topics, participants at a particular stage of their career (e.g. postgraduates, early-career researchers), types of content and modes of presentation. Do try to work the keywords into your abstract (if your work really is relevant!). Do make sure you’re eligible to present at that particular conference. Do include a sentence along the lines of “My paper fits with conference themes A, B and C”. The more you can help the organiser figure out how your work fits in with their priorities, the better. There is honestly nothing more heartbreaking than having to reject what looks like an awesome paper that I really want to see because it doesn’t quite fit with the conference themes.

Things that are not 20-minute presentations: The standard conference format – for better or for worse – is a 20-minute paper. Having said that, there are conference organisers who would love to loosen things up a bit. If the CfP explicitly encourages proposals for discussion groups, pecha kucha, workshops, posters, practice showcase, or other formats, take the opportunity to experiment! You’ll make the organiser’s day. There are a few things to consider if you do this though:

  • As a rule of thumb, be careful about proposing things that would take more time than the standard 20-minute paper. If I’m going to give you a larger share of time, I expect to get more value from it, and you may need to convince me that that’s the case. If you offer me a workshop or discussion, I’m much more likely to give you the extra time than if you just want another ten minutes for what’s basically a standard paper. And do consider the context when asking for more time: you’re less likely to get it in a one-day symposium than in a four-day conference.
  • If you can offer me options (“I can do this as a paper or a discussion group”), that’s amazing and gives me flexibility to fit you around other content.
  • Be prepared for the organiser to come back and ask you for a different format. I  pitched a poster to a conference once (which had explicitly asked for posters among other things) but it turned out I was the only one. The organisers were kind enough to give me the opportunity to present a paper instead.
  • If you are pitching anything other than a 20-minute paper, make that clear right from the start. Even before you get into “In this paper I argue…” say “This is a proposal for [a poster/a discussion session/an interpretive dance performance].” This makes it much more likely that the organiser will notice you’re proposing something different, and much less likely that you’ll turn up expecting to lead a discussion when the organiser expects a paper.

Stick in the organiser’s mind. As an organiser I have to process a large number of 300-word abstracts, many of which have titles that wouldn’t fit in a tweet. What I found myself doing very quickly was giving papers nicknames: The Tumblr Paper; The Bucky Barnes Paper; The Asexuality Paper. (These are made up, but you get the gist.) The way I pick these nicknames is by latching on to something that is either familiar or interesting/unexpected. Your paper is now forever tied to those one or two concepts in my mind. And yes, there are other bits of processing I’ll do (what media are you talking about, what are the key themes, how might it fit with other papers), but that nickname is still very powerful. It may have an impact on whether your paper gets accepted. It almost certainly will have an impact on what other papers you end up grouped with in a panel, which in turn will have an impact on the quality of questions and engagement you get after you’ve presented.

Now, you don’t know me and therefore it’s very difficult for you to predict what my brain will latch on to in giving your paper its nickname. What you can do is deliberately give me ideas for nicknames. Think about what other papers you would want to be grouped with, and what the key themes and keywords might be that organisers will pick up on for that kind of grouping. Try to think of a catchy nickname that fits with those themes. Now write an abstract that can be easily summed up with that nickname. So if your (totally made up) paper is about how Tumblr as a platform shapes the kind of community that lives on it, and you want to be on a panel with other people talking about different platforms and communities, then The Tumblr Paper is actually quite a good nickname to aim for. If your (still made up, but I kinda wanna write both of these) paper is based on a data set from Tumblr but actually talks about porn gifs and how they differ from the porn videos they’re taken from, then I’d suggest aiming for The Porn Gif Paper instead. That’s much more likely to get you on a porn panel, if that’s where you want to go.

Granted, this feels a bit like stabbing in the dark, and there are many other considerations that go into what panel you end up on, but it’s something I intend to try in order to fix some of my own “I wish they’d put me on that other panel instead” woes.

Oh, and the basics.

  • Stick to the word count. Particularly in the abstract, don’t go over (annoys the organisers), and try not to go significantly under (makes me think there isn’t quite enough substance to your paper). Going under is less of an issue in the bio, but again, try not to go over.
  • Check exactly what the CfP asks for. Abstract and bio? Abstract and CV? Full paper and six academic references? Submit what you’re asked for.
  • Don’t forget to give your paper a title. (I say this as someone who habitually does this, so, you know, do what I say, not what I do.) The absence of title is unlikely to be a deciding factor in acceptance/rejection of a paper, but it will get you a follow-up email from the organisers.

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