Top Tips on Writing Conference Abstracts

Catherine HindsonCatherine Hindson provides us with some great tips on how to write good conference abstracts. She is Senior Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies and Head of the Theatre department at the University of Bristol. She was convenor of the Working Group in Theatre History and Historiography (2012-2015) and is lead organizer for next year’s 2016 TaPRA conference at the University of Bristol.

Catherine’s research interests are in popular performance in the long nineteenth century and the relationship between the theatre industry, heritage and historiography. Her latest book West End Actresses, Charity and the Theatre Industry, 1880-1920 will be published by University of Iowa Press later in 2016. 

Abstract writing demands a very particular set of skills. Some people find writing abstracts simple and straightforward. I am not one of them. In fact I’d go as far as to say that the production of a coherent abstract is one of my least favourite professional tasks. I guess this makes me a good person to be writing this blog post in which I have tried to put together a brief list of the key things I have learnt about abstract writing from writing them myself and from reading many abstracts as a conference organiser and TaPRA working group convenor.

1) A key reason why writing abstracts is difficult is because they require you to think hard about what you are proposing to do and to put down on paper how you are going to do it and why it matters. All in a very small number of words…

2) If you flip this on its head, what this also mean is that writing a good abstract can really help you with planning a paper, chapter or article. See, there is an up side…

3) What it should also suggest is that writing a good abstract is going to take some time. The most important thing I have learned about reading and writing abstracts is DON’T leave it until the last minute. It might be a short piece of writing, but it’s not an easy writing task. Don’t confuse the two things! If there is a call for papers have a draft abstract ready a good week before.

4) Write a new abstract for every call for papers, practice or articles that you respond to. The abstract must always be specific to the call. Never lift one that you have written for another version of your research project and try to use it for another purpose. Avoid generic descriptions of your research, be precise and focused. Conference organisers regularly get abstracts that propose material the size of a thesis for a twenty minute paper. Think about what you can realistically achieve in the set time or word count. You can be sure that your conference organiser or editor will be when she or he makes their selection…

5) Send your draft abstract to someone else to have a look at it before your submit it. It could be your supervisor, a peer or a friend, but it needs to be someone you know will be honest with you.

6) Remember your abstract could well end up in the public domain – on websites or in conference programmes. You’ll probably get a chance to edit it, but rarely to completely rewrite it. Sometimes it just goes up/out as you have submitted it first time round. A good litmus test before you finally hit send is to imagine someone you admire in the field reading it. Still happy with it? Still feel it does the job? Then it is ready to go…

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