The Conference Abstract

So there’s a Call For Papers (CFP), which seems tailor made for your latest project.  Or maybe there is one that seems to be calling out for an old essay that you’ve been meaning to get back to and just haven’t found the time.  Or maybe there is a great conference in a terrific location, so you need to imagine a paper to get you there.  But before you book your plane ticket and pay your registration fees, you need to have your paper accepted.  In short, you need the golden ticket: the perfect abstract!

What does the perfect abstract look like?  Does such a thing even exist?

Yes.  And no.  It’s a tough question because much of the selection process is depends on the number, quality, and content of the submissions.  There are, in other words, many factors beyond the control of the panelist hopefuls.  I’ve organized several panels now for various conferences including the MLA, and the part of the process that I like the least is having to turn abstracts down.  But there are only so many slots on any given panel.  Knowing that nobody wins all the time, what can you do to give your abstract the best chance of being selected?

Be conscious of the deadline. The easiest abstract to turn away is the one that you receive after the deadline has passed and the selections have already been submitted to the Powers That Be.  If the deadline is March 1, have the abstract there on March 1 or sooner.

Respect the limits. If the CFP asks for 300 words, send 300 words.  You might get away with 315, but do not send a 500 word abstract.  Nothing says “I-will-go-overtime-and-make-the-chair-cut-me-off” like disregarding these kinds of limits.  If the CFP has a vague description of the abstract requirements, it’s not a bad idea to email the contact person and ask for clarification.

Attachments: If you send the abstract as an attachment, you need to make sure:

  1. that you actually attach your abstract.
  2. that your abstract is readable (.doc, .rft., .pdf)

Position your claim in relation to the CFP. Don’t  assume that the organizer will automatically make the connection between your argument and the panel topic.  If the topic of the CFP is an open call, then this is not an issue, but if the organizer solicits papers on a more focused subject, it is a good idea to make sure that it is clear how your paper will contribute to the panel.

Make an argument. In addition to positioning your project  in relation to the CFP, be direct about what you plan to argue and how you are going to make your claims.  Obviously, you need not go into excruciating detail, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to in the space that you will have, but give the organizer a clear sense of what your presentation will bring to the table.  What question are you going to answer?  What commonly held idea will you refute?


Lastly, there is an element of chance or serendipity involved.  Even if you have done everything right and have submitted a strong and provocative abstract, there are no guarantees.  Often, it comes down to which three of the however many strong contenders fit best together.  Many the organizer wants three papers that represent diverse approaches to the topic, but maybe there are three papers that seem to be in conversation with one another.

Do you have any do’s and don’t for conference abstracts?  Any tips or tricks?  Please share in the comments section below.


[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user stan.]

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