Writing a Paper Abstract

Now that you’ve found a cfp (call for papers), you need to write a paper proposal or abstract. Paper abstracts are concise introductions to the paper you are proposing. Conference planners read abstracts to determine if your topic fits the panel’s theme. If your abstract is a good fit, you’ll be offered a spot on a panel, where you’ll read your full paper. If not, you can modify your abstract to apply to another conference.

Because conference planners may get dozens of abstracts, they often have a very limited word count. Many conference planners ask for abstracts with around 250 words.

There are different approaches to writing an abstract in response to a cfp. One method is to draft an abstract from a preexisting piece of writing. This might be a paper you wrote for a class, or part of a dissertation chapter. The second method is to write the abstract before writing the paper. A speculative abstract will address the cfp’s topic(s) and give you usable pages toward a seminar paper, article, or dissertation chapter.

In either case, your abstract should address the questions or topics mentioned in the cfp (often by repeating key words or phrases from the cfp). It should lay out the premise for your conference paper. Even if your paper is still just a hypothetical to you, describe it in the present tense and with certainty. Your abstract should:

  • concisely explain the question your paper seeks to answer
  • why your question matters
  • How your question fills a gap in general knowledge
  • why your methods are appropriate.
  • Even if you feel you’re speculating, include a sentence about what this paper will allow you to conclude, and/or what further scholarship it will enable. (“The Professor Is In” guide below offers a helpful 6 step formula for achieving these goals.)

Make sure in your abstract to link your ideas not only to what the cfp requests, but also to the theme of the conference. Google the conference or panel organizers Determine their discipline and primary research interests from a departmental or other professional webpage and take these into account when crafting your abstract. For example, if you are proposing a paper for a panel organized by an art historian, you should mention keywords relating to visual culture in your abstract and resulting paper.

Remember that your paper, if accepted, will have a time limit–usually 15-20 minutes, which is about 7-10 pages if read clearly. Thus, if your abstract is running a bit long, think to yourself, which parts do you have the most research to support? Cut anything that refers to weaker material that you may not cover anyway due to time constraints.

Once you submit your paper proposal, stay busy with other work while waiting for a reply. Once an acceptance comes your way, pat yourself on the back and start drafting or reshaping your material. Reply to the organizers promptly to confirm your participation and add the conference paper to your CV if you’re planning to attend the conference. And read our post on conference presentation tips!


More resources on conference abstracts:

The Professor is in has an excellent break down on conference abstract writing. It is my favorite description of conference abstract writing. See it here.

North Carolina State University has good advice for writing history abstracts, but their advice about concision, paying attention to buzzwords, and avoiding too many research questions in an abstract are good advice that apply to many disciplines. Plus they show nice samples, which also highlight many of the points mentioned in the Professor is in post. See NCSU’s advice here.

Finally, this wordpress site has excellent similar advice to The Professor is in. This post really emphasizes the current state of knowledge and the need to quickly identify a gap in the knowledge, using a conjunction like BUT or HOWEVER. I’ve found this advice very useful and reinforces the information found in these other resources. See it here.