How to write a conference abstract (or how NOT to write one)

Source: PhD Comics

The summer and early fall are what I call “conference season“; somehow, all the conferences that interest me in my field always take place between mid-June and early September, and I find the rhythm of my summer (and much of the year) dictated by these events which are fixed points in time, unlike the rest of the wibbly-wobbly, and largely self-imposed, timeline of the PhD. Attending at least two conferences per year means having to stay on top of data collection, data analysis, presentation skills and networking. It also gives you the chance to think about your work from several angles, and especially about how it fits into the existing dialogue between researchers in your field, which is extremely useful for sitting down and writing papers (ideally right when you return from the conference). But it also means that, as much as my summers are characterized by last minute analyses, PowerPoint slides, practice talks, packing, travel and jet-lag, the winter months are characterized by writing abstracts, and finding an interesting story to tell about my research….

…in just a handful of words.

Well, maybe not a handful. Maybe more like 200 or 300 words. But that’s basically a handful to me, given my inability to adhere to a word-limit for anything I have ever written in my entire life so far (blog posts included), as well as the added challenge of having to be selective when you have a huge project and lots of interesting things to say about it. No matter how much experience I have gained with writing abstracts so far, the length of time it takes me to produce a good abstract is always the same: about 30 minutes of writing, followed by 30 hours of…un-writing. Yes, it always takes me infinitely longer to cut my text, in order to get my story to fit into the little submission box online.

In fact, my abstract-writing process always goes something like this:

1)     Write the PERFECT abstract! Feel satisfied and deeply excited about my research!

2)     Reluctantly check the word-count and discover that I am at least 200 words above the limit (which I initially pretended would not matter, “just as long as I get my ideas out first”. So naïve).

3)     Cut, cut, cut. There is hope.

4)     Re-read my no-longer-perfect-and-nowhere-near-CLEAR-abstract. Lose hope.

5)     Add more words to add clarity.

6)     Reluctantly check the word-count and discover that I am at least 198 words above the limit.

7)     Cut different words (because I totally got attached to the ones I just added).

8)     Sigh several times in a one-minute span, worrying and/or annoying my office-mates.

9)     Consider beginning from scratch (Warning: this may unleash tears).

10)   Re-read again and again and again, pausing to weigh the essentialness of every single word (e.g. “do I really need ‘the’ here?”) and to check whether quotation marks and commas count as separate words (They don’t. Phew).

11)   Consider the possibility of hyphenating every third word, or including all relevant information in the title instead of the body of the text.

12)   Begin to feel pain in lower back and neck, followed by a jittery restlessness in the legs. Marvel at how many hours have elapsed since I started this process.

13)   Decide to sacrifice clarify and go for brevity, cutting considerably, feeling brave and unstoppable (and utterly imprecise).

14)   Submit, breathe a sigh of relief, and continue to talk with omitted words and self-corrections for the next few days, as if this torturous editing process has completely messed up my language abilities.

Note that somewhere between steps #6 and #12 is the time where my supervisor walks into my office and declares, with a teasing grin on his face, that he just submitted his abstract which he wrote without breaking a sweat and found that he needed even less than 200 words.

That always manages to make things considerably worse.

Can you relate to this process? How do conference abstracts differ in your field? And what are some of your strategies for writing successful conference abstracts?

Here are some strategies I have come to find helpful over the years, or some that have been shared in our student-initiated Academic Writing Group in our department:

  • Clarify for yourself first what you want this specific presentation to address (i.e. not your whole thesis but an interesting angle of it, or one “story” that is part of the larger picture).
  • Know who the audience is and what the themes of the conference are. Include keywords that attract the right people and that are in line with the main topics of the conference.
  • Focus NOT on being comprehensive, but to-the-point, clear, interesting, and just informative enough.
  • Think in terms of headings and devote one sentence to each one:
    – Background (emphasize “problem” or “gap” in previous research)
    – Aim or objective of study you are presenting (linking this with background)
    – Participants/methods (only what we absolutely need to know)
    – Predictions and actual results (in line with or contrary to your expectations?)
    – Conclusions / importance of this work (contributions to the field, novelty)
  • Only provide the background and methodological details which are absolutely necessary to understanding your objectives and results. It is natural to want to include everything about the background, all your measures/tasks or even participant demographics. But if you don’t have room, you need to make decisions about what the priorities are for readers (and reviewers!), keeping your audience and take-home-message in mind.
  • Make your work accessible and interesting. Could readers tell what is new or exciting about this work? Why should people come and see your talk or your poster?
  • Think fresh. Chances are, you have written about this work dozens of times before, and you are comfortable laying out the arguments in a certain way or order. But, breaking free from the way you have always written about your thesis can help get your point across more clearly and concisely for this specific presentation. Be flexible!
  • Give yourself time to distance yourself from the abstract for a little while. This time away from your words will allow you to more objectively decide what’s essential and what’s not. This is difficult to do, as we are so busy and tend to wait until the deadline is only a few hours away…
  • Ask a colleague to look over your abstract. They are not emotionally-attached to any of your words and could easily reword or trim if need be. Even better if your colleague is outside of your immediate field, as he/she will indicate whether everything is clear or if something feels incomplete/confusing.
  • As tempting as it might be when you’re on a roll with cutting down your text, do not use abbreviations or acronyms unless you have defined them first. Reviewers and readers are likely to get annoyed with this.
  • Pay attention to the submission guidelines, as organizers sometimes indicate preferences about headings, references and figures.

In short (ha! Do forgive the pun), putting effort into writing a good abstract not only serves as your ticket to that conference (and to whatever city it is in), opening up doors for making your work known and for establishing connections with other researchers in your area, it also gets you thinking about and writing about your work in different ways, angles, and words. This is a valuable writing exercise and a stepping-stone for writing your thesis and/or manuscripts for publication. So, thankfully, it seems the process is as constructive as it is painful!

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