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Tips on writing an abstract for a conference paper

Presenting at conferences is an important part of entering academic society, and grad students are usually encouraged to present their PhD work at least once to a major conference. But before you even get to the stress of writing a presentation, you have to be successful in the scrum that is abstract submission.

Considering the brevity of these documents – typically less than 500 words – the amount of effort required to write one seems disproportionate! Whilst some conferences provide detailed examples of what they wish to see, others do not even give formatting guidelines.

I’ve had mixed success in the past, and the current abstract is intended for a particularly important conference which I really want to present at, so I’ve been trying to create an explicit pathway for creating the best abstract I can. Some aspects of abstract writing remain a bit of a mystery, so I’d appreciate any feedback you could give, but I present below what I’ve learnt so far:

Preparation – know your audience, know your material

One important aspect of abstract writing that is sometimes overlooked is the conference itself. Abstracts have to be tailored to the whims of the conference and session organisers. It is worth making sure that the conference you are eyeing up really is the best place for you to present. With money for conferences sometimes in short supply, check with your supervisor or colleagues whether this is the best conference. If you are certain,

  • Track down the names of the session organisers.
  • See if anyone you know, perhaps your supervisor, has the abstract handbook from the last edition of the conference
  • If the previous conference has published proceedings it may be worth examining this to get a feel for the approaches the conference prefers
  • Identify any special themes to this year’s conference
  • Double-check the abstract submission guidelines and deadline
  • If you are working with other people, get their permission before you submit

Trying to fit into the conference ‘theme’ is unlikely to work well at graduate level, because unless life is being particularly serendipitous, your work is probably so niche that shoe-horning it into a ‘theme’ will be obvious and not that successful. Don’t try and make your work something it isn’t, just to fit it into a particular conference.

Remember that in general, conference organisers only like to include presentations by people who have completed their work. If you have an incomplete study, it will be difficult to get a conference to accept your abstract because you won’t be able to tell them the conclusions of your work. This is a key piece of information they use to judge whether your work is suitable for the conference!

Whilst important members of your field, including your supervisor, may have a laissez-faire attitude to submitting on time, you are unlikely to have that luxury. Remember to draft the abstract early and enquire whether your supervisor will offer constructive criticism before you send it off. Submit on time: whilst you can try submitting late, don’t hold out too much hope!

Abstract structure – attention to detail

Every discipline is different, but there are some general guidelines that you can follow. Abstracts are often broken down into three paragraphs:

  • Paragraph 1: What the problem is and why people should care.
    Introduce the context of your study, perhaps including the particular issue or question your study responds to. In general people don’t mention their study in this paragraph, but use this opportunity to set up the context of the study and demonstrate their understanding of current literature. It helps if you can demonstrate that your question or issue is interesting and worth answering.
  • Paragraph 2: Your approach, and your results
    This is where we get the real meat of what you might present. Outline your project, the theoretical or practical techniques you used, the experiment or source material, and how you answered the question you outlined in paragraph 1. The number of words you have to play with governs to a certain extent how much detail you go into, but it’s worth trying to make this important section as meaningful as possible. Remember to explain your evidence and where it comes from, not just what it is you’re arguing. If your paper is an argument, remember to establish the steps you go through to get to the final point.
  • Paragraph 3: Conclusions, and why people should listen to you.
    Here you discuss briefly how your work affects the wider context of your discipline, and why it is relevant and exciting. You need to convince the reader that your research is significant and that you deserve the time to present it.

Some people place the study in the wider disciplinary context right at the beginning, others suggest making the first sentence/paragraph bold and challenging. That’s probably okay if you can count on people knowing the material reasonably well, but in some disciplines or interdisciplinary events your subject can be so niche that you need that first paragraph to properly give the context.

The above structure works for a 300-500 word abstract, but if you are allowed more or less you will need to adjust this outline. No matter how short or long, remember to avoid generalisations and make every word count. Reviewers always appreciate someone who gets to the point!

Abstract formatting – clean and clear

  • Some conferences have a template. If so, use this and do not deviate from it.
  • Pick a good name for your presentation. I’m not good at this myself, but it’s important.
  • Don’t go over the word limit! Your work may be dismissed out of hand.
  • Equally, it’s not a good idea to produce less than the minimum word number suggested.
  • Leave off the jargon if you can. If you use anything obscure, explain it. Otherwise, do without.
  • If the conference does not give formatting guidelines, use those of an associated or most relevant journal
  • Try not to use too many references – generally five is enough for a big abstract – consider including ‘classic’ and ‘cutting edge’ references
  • Double check any references if they involve one or more of the session organisers!
  • Don’t include a bibliography unless asked for one, it’s usually a waste of words
  • Do not forget the names of second/third authors

Some conference organisers send their abstracts to be reviewed anonymously – it might be worth making sure that any references to your previous work that you make are done carefully so that you don’t spoil that. Generally it is advisable not to put your name on the abstract or in the file name of a document unless you are asked to.

As ever, double-check things, proof-read and get as many people as you can to help you read through and check the draft. Supervisors should be happy to do this. Keep reading, revising and coming back to the abstract for as long as you can, as it will really benefit from your tender loving care.

Finally…

Conferences are a great way to offend people, and this is also true of abstracts. Remember that the abstracts are likely to be visible to lots of people, so don’t be overly critical of another researcher, even if that is the main thrust of your work. Trust your supervisor’s judgement on this. If your work is conducted with someone else, make sure they are happy with what you are submitting. Lastly, if you need to include an additional author due to their earlier help – do not forget. Some people take this sort of stuff very very seriously.

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2 comments on “Tips on writing an abstract for a conference paper

  1. This is wonderful advice for all budding conference presenters. I have just started out in presenting and I find it really deciding on a topic for a talk. I have relied on my research for my MA but I would really like to broaden into other areas. So for people like me, the advice that I would give is choose a subject/topic that you are interested in. It is not very inspiring attending a talk when the speaker has no interest in the subject/topic.

    Nevertheless, a thorough and invaluable blog post for those wishing to delve in the arena known as conference talks.

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