Dermot Feenan, Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London, offers some observations and tips on producing a conference abstract.
Many conferences, such as the SLSA’s Annual Conference, require presenters to submit an abstract. Yet, there’s little information available on how to write one. Some conference organisers, such as the LSA, provide guidance on abstracts but most do not.
I have organised dozens of conferences in law. Occasionally, I reject abstracts because authors don’t meet the requirements or the expected standard for the conference. But many such authors, especially postgraduate and junior scholars, have previously received no guidance on how to write an abstract. So, I share here some observations and tips which may help authors of standard abstracts, and, perhaps, other conference organisers.
The following tips are not a set of draconian rules. Rather, like the ‘principles’ enunciated by the late Joseph Williams, author of the invaluable Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, they seek to help ‘anticipate how readers are likely to respond to a piece of prose’. Nor do I set out clichés such as ‘use plain language, be clear and concise’. There are plenty of guides on style, including Martin Cutt’s Oxford Guide to Plain English.
The abstract should precis all parts of the paper. It can serve also to attract an audience, allowing delegates to quickly decide to attend your presentation over others.
Ten tips for standard abstracts
- If the conference has a theme, ensure the abstract reflects that relationship to the theme. Study any call for papers.
- The title should match the body of the abstract. Keep it short, typically no more than 150 characters (with spaces).
- Ideally, use a single paragraph.
- State the problem(s) or research question(s), with reference to prior research (including, if appropriate, the key literature).
- State the main point(s), thesis or argument(s) of the proposed presentation.
- Outline the key structure of the presentation.
- State the method(s) used, if appropriate.
- If a method is empirical and has yielded data, state the relevant key findings.
- If your approach is new, say how. State any theoretical or practical implication(s).
- If necessary, state the period and place to which the paper refers. Occasionally, abstracts omit such limitations; implicitly purporting, God-like, to cover all time and all space. Hmmm.
I offer below some further observations and tips to enhance the prospect of having the abstract accepted.
Do what you say you’ll do
If you say, for instance, ‘I will illustrate’, then set up at least one illustration. If you say that you’ll explore the relationship between concepts but then say that you’ve been unable to find any relationship and, therefore, have nothing or very little to say, this looks careless.
Ensure that the verb that conveys what you intend to do is precise. I’ve seen lots of abstracts that use inapt verbs. Discrete, different meanings are covered by commonly used verbs such as ‘explain’, ‘discuss’, ‘survey’, and ‘analyse’.
It’s for a conference
A conference abstract serves a slightly different function – and engages a different type of reading – than an abstract for a journal article. The conference abstract is read alone. It announces, typically, a verbal delivery lasting 20 minutes on average. The abstract offers an opportunity to outline what will be in the presentation, e.g. ‘I will illustrate this point using an excerpt from a video-interview’.
To ask or not to ask…questions
It’s ok to raise questions in the abstract: they can pique interest. However, the presentation should seek to answer these questions. Simply repeating questions in the presentation might seem intellectually lazy.
First-person, third-person, author-person, non-person
It’s acceptable to use the singular form of the first person (subjective case), sparingly. It can help to humanise a paper and convey authorial voice. Too much, though, and it can seem egoistic. Moreover, sincerity doesn’t necessarily equal craft, still less style. The use of the first-person plural (‘we’) by a solo author seems like overreach. Writing of oneself as ‘the author’ seems somewhat dissociative. More puzzling are abstracts that appear to have no personal voice, but present as an immaculate intellectual conception. A mix can work well: ‘I will’ … ‘the paper will…’
Conventionally, abstracts are anywhere between 100 and 350 words. The SLSA Annual Conference 2018 stipulated no more than 300 words. If you follow the guidelines above, you’ll probably find that the abstract comes in around 250-300 words. Stick to the guideline word count set by the organisers.
Language, grammar and syntax
Ensure that the style of language is appropriate. Check for syntax, punctuation and spelling. The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors can help with common difficulties: including information not available in standard dictionaries. If you’re not fluent in the language of the conference, double-check the abstract for grammar. Sometimes variations in syntax between languages can give a conference organiser the incorrect impression of a lack of intellectual rigour and lead to an abstract being rejected.
Avoid a list of references: the abstract is not a miniature article following the conventions of modern citation practices. Keep any referencing in the body of the abstract simple but ensure that any citation of case law, legislation and literature is precise enough to allow someone to find it easily.
Conferences typically allow submissions to a specific stream or to a general pool. In either event, the stream or conference organisers group the abstract with other papers to form a session (or panel). It’s important, therefore, to be precise in the abstract. When I started out, I submitted a few times to the general pool. The mix of papers in a session sometimes had a mongrel quality. Now, I try to submit to a specific stream or I create my own stream/ special session.
Obfuscation v. sharp and slow stimulation
Joseph Williams wrote that style is an ethical matter. It is, but perhaps in ways broader than Williams envisaged. Obscure language is unhelpful but putting the reader to work through use of uncommon words, neologisms or unconventional thinking is necessary to advance intellectual enquiry. The abstract can also operate, pace Barthes, as punctum – pricking the reader’s consciousness. It can also work its way slowly into the mind. Learning doesn’t usually arrive immediately upon reading. Meaning can be slow-released.
Ask for input
Feedback on one’s abstract from others can be helpful. Ask. For graduate students, a supervisor should help.
Send it in well in advance
I now tend when organising small-scale events to offer feedback on abstracts. Sending an abstract in early makes it easier for an organiser of such a conference to provide feedback.
Oh, and make sure it goes to the right place. I once received an abstract which seemed prima facie suitable. The author pestered me for a response. When I notified the author that it had been received, I was advised it had been sent to the wrong conference! His name is seared in my memory.
You can get rejected
An abstract can be rejected. I’ve had to reject abstracts, including some from senior colleagues, because they were poorly produced. Delegates paying to attend a conference may have a reasonable expectation about its value for money, especially with reference to academic quality. Following the tips above, the likelihood of such rejection is much less likely.