Tips for Writing a Conference Abstract

By Vicki Daniel

If you are reading this blogpost, there is a good chance you are planning to write a conference abstract for the HSS. Maybe this is the first time you are applying to a conference. Or maybe you’ve had a few conference rejections and you are wondering what you can do differently. Here are some suggestions for writing your abstract, whether for the HSS or another conference.

Note: As graduate student in the humanities, I can’t promise that these tips are universal. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to keep them general enough to be valuable.

  • Know your audience.

Hopefully, you are submitting your abstract to a conference for which your work is a good fit. If you have been to this particular conference before, you will probably already have a feel for what kinds of papers are usually selected and what the vibe of the sessions is. If you are unfamiliar with the conference, you can often find programs from previous years online and do some research that way.

You may also be responding to a specific call for papers (CFP). If this is the case, reread the CFP several times to understand the theme of the conference and the goals that the organizers have set up for the event. Is it an informal graduate conference on a broad topic? Or is it a specialized society seeking to explore a particular subtopic within the field? While you should not drastically alter your own research to conform to a conference, you will want to be sure that your abstract will be relevant and interesting to the program committee.

Regardless of the size of the conference or your familiarity with the field, try not to assume that your program committee knows everything about your topic. Don’t launch into your argument without briefly setting up your topic first.

  • Use the abstract as an intellectual exercise.

Unlike the abstract you may write for your dissertation or a published article, most conference abstracts will describe a talk or paper that you have not yet developed. Sometimes you may be starting from scratch but, hopefully, you are likely writing about a project for which you have done some research. Nonetheless, the abstract is your opportunity to put a framework around the project, decide what your major argument will be, and how you are contributing to the field. In other words, don’t assume that, because the paper is not yet written, you can get away with being vague.

  • Be concise but not robotic.

The concise length of the abstract forces you to accomplish several things in a short word count so it is both a useful exercise and a critical skill to help you develop as a scholar. In anywhere from, say, 250 to 500 words, you will need to provide a quick overview of the question in your field that you are addressing, the gap in that literature that your work seeks to fill, the specific material you are presenting, and your argument. That may sound easy enough in theory but, as we all know, spitting out all our big ideas in a clear, direct manner can be tough!

If it helps, just write out an abstract with no concern for word count, language, clarity, etc. This will give you something to work with, as opposed to the dreaded white page with blinking cursor.

The benefit of keeping your abstract short (besides not boring the program committee) is that it forces you to write with clarity and precision. Take out filler phrases, such as, “I will aim to…” or “One can argue that…” At the same time, don’t be so concise that the abstract develops a staccato rhythm. A strong abstract strikes a balance between concise, clear writing and engaging prose. Try writing your abstract, putting it away for a few days, and coming back to it. Or simple read it out loud to yourself. Both of these tricks allow you to see or hear the words differently and catch clunky or confusing turns of phrase.

At the end of all that, make sure that you have:

  1. Outlined a problem or topic in your field.
  2. Identified a gap in the literature on that particular problem or topic.
  3. Presented your contribution to filling this gap and your argument.
  4. Described the materials you are using.
  • Don’t forget the basics!

Be sure you include a title, your contact information, and professional affiliation. Proofread, edit, walk away, and repeat. Yes, this seems like common sense but you might be so engaged writing the abstract itself that you overlook the tiniest things.

In the end, if you are as thoughtful about your conference abstracts as any other form of writing you do as a graduate student, you will have plenty of conferences in your future. Good luck!

This post was contributed by Vicki Daniel, graduate student in the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ms. Daniel recently screened the CFP submissions for the 2015 Midwest Junto for the History of Science to be held in Madison, WI, April 17-19. Read more about Ms. Daniel here: