On the art of writing abstracts – and summer in Utrecht

One of the things research students are always being told is the importance of publicising our work.  A key way of doing this is through giving papers at conferences.  The organisers send out a call for papers, to which potential speakers are invited to reply with an abstract; this is a summary of the proposed talk, with a word limit which is generally somewhere between150 to 500 words.  But how to write a good abstract?  Formulating something that will get your work noticed, and, more importantly, accepted for a conference, is something of an art.  It can be dispiriting when abstracts are rejected, especially as submitters are rarely offered feedback explaining why their work has not been included.  As a first year PhD student, I have had a few rejections, but, having sent off lots of abstracts at the start of the summer, am now enjoying more success (my next paper will be delivered a conference on Global Commodities: The material culture of early modern connections at the University of Warwick – http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/ghcc/research/globalcommodities/finalconference/).

So what is it that makes a successful abstract?  This post includes my thoughts on the topic, but I can’t claim to be an expert, so all comments and feedback are much appreciated!

Two questions you should ask yourself before you even consider writing an abstract are ‘does my work fit with the theme of the conference?’, and ‘do I know what I’m talking about?’  Abstracts are a lot of effort, and if you are trying to distort your work to fit with an unsuitable theme, it is much less likely to be accepted.  Although it might be tempting to propose a paper on research you have yet to do, especially if it fits well with the conference theme, it’s a much better idea to write an abstract based on work you have already completed.  If you don’t know your stuff, it will be obvious if your abstract is read by a specialist in the field – how embarrassing!

If the conference applied for is a recurring event, it is useful to read the abstracts from previous sessions.  This gives a good idea of the sorts of approaches the organisers welcome.  Make sure that your title is brief but informative, that the abstract itself is written clearly, and proof read to eliminate errors in spelling and grammar.  Having been on the other side of the fence myself, I know that reading hundreds of submitted abstracts with the aim of selecting just a few is a challenge, and that organisers simply don’t have time to disentangle the meaning from a garbled abstract.  Relatedly, stick to the word limit.  Surprisingly, many don’t, and this may lead to your work being rejected without even being read.

Perhaps the most useful piece of advice I have come across was in a call for papers, which suggested that ‘abstracts should define the subject and summarize the questions to be raised in the proposed paper.’  This might sound obvious to seasoned writers of abstracts, but it is incredibly useful advice, especially in that it suggests a clear structure.  It also ties in with another piece of advice I was given by a friend who seems to have innumerable abstracts accepted: don’t give too much away.  He suggests that the abstract should be an intriguing series of questions, which grab a reader’s interest without detailing the key findings or argument, so that they feel they need to hear more.

Finally, if an abstract is rejected, make sure you look at the final conference programme.  Sometimes it is very obvious why your paper didn’t make it.  For example, even if the call for papers suggested that your research would fit in perfectly, the final programme may indicate the opposite!  That way you know it wasn’t the quality of your work that was the problem.

On another note, last month I spent ten days in Utrecht, at a summer school for research students on court residences as places of exchange in early modern Europe.  This was organised by Palatium, a research networking program of the European science foundation.  The programme was crammed full of talks from eminent academics, including Monique Chatenet, Konrad Ottenheym and Krista de Jonge (who will all be familiar to anyone working on early modern courts and their architecture), and visits to palaces in the Netherlands and Germany.  35 research students from all over Europe took part.  As we were all working in related areas, it was incredibly useful to talk about and compare our work, and I gained lots of valuable new perspectives, and suggestions for reading.  The summer school will be running again in 2014.  Anyone interested in it, or the excellent work of the Palatium program, can check it out at www.courtresidences.eu.


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