Committees for conferences and symposia often read many, many abstracts before they decide which ones to eventually accept. To get through submissions quickly, committee members often look for a few key signs to determine whether a paper can be easily rejected, or whether it’s worth putting aside for further consideration.
So, we at GIFCon thought we’d share with you what we look for when we read an abstract for our event, as well as some useful tips for submission.
Please note that this isn’t intended as a cast iron guide for submitting to all events, though some of these tips will be useful wherever you’re sending your abstract. Nor is this intended as a guide to creating an abstract from scratch, though we’ve also included some helpful links on writing an abstract at the end of this guide.
In summary, we’re looking for four key things in your abstract:
1) Fit to the Theme
2) A Clear and Concise Argument
3) Fit to the Timeslot
4) Your Ability to Complete the Paper
1) Fit to the Theme
When you’re sorting through a large volume of abstracts for a symposium, the easiest way to narrow down your choices is to reject those papers that don’t fit the theme of your event. Therefore, the first thing we’re looking for in your abstract is a reference to the call for papers. How does your paper fit in with the conference theme?
Make this context obvious early in the abstract. Pop a key word from the CfP in your title, if that’s suitable. If the committee have to go hunting for the paper’s relevance, you’re making it harder for them to accept your abstract. Don’t spend the entire abstract explaining the paper’s relevance at the expense of your argument. At the same time, don’t assume it’s enough to simply throw in random keywords from the CfP to make your paper relevant. Explain how your proposed paper fits in to the conference theme in a sentence or two, then move on.
If you’re finding it difficult to fit your paper into the theme of a symposium or conference, it might be worth considering whether your paper is right for that event. In 2018, we received several papers that were fascinating, and appeared to break new ground in their fields. However, the abstracts had absolutely no reference to ‘Escaping Escapism in Fantasy and the Fantastic’, and did not appear to fit into the conference theme more broadly. As a result, we had to reject them.
2) A Clear, Concise Argument
When a committee is reading a large volume of abstracts, they also need to determine quickly what your paper aims to do. This includes where it sits in the field, why you’re exploring this aspect of your topic, which text/s you’re looking at, and what you hope to illuminate by doing so. Therefore, while it is crucial the paper fits the call, it’s also important that your abstract itself has a clear argument, written concisely within the word limit.
There’s another reason for making your abstract as clear as possible. While a committee will include experts in areas related to the theme of the symposium or conference, it’s unlikely their expertise covers the whole of the field. Especially if your paper covers an esoteric niche within your subject, a clear and concise argument will help the committee to grasp what you’re intending to do in your paper.
Therefore, tailor your abstract appropriately, and make sure it flows from beginning to end. Don’t assume the committee will connect the dots between any points that you make – ensure that they follow on from each other. Assume general knowledge of the field, but avoid jargon that’s not commonly found in the subject at large. If you absolutely must use niche terms, make sure they are clearly defined.
Whatever you do, don’t follow Calvin’s advice!
A note on Titles and Keywords: While wit and wordplay are often found in titles, make sure yours briefly sums up the key terms of your paper without going over two lines. For examples, see our resource links at the end. Also, if you include key words at the end of your abstract, make sure they’re relevant to the abstract submitted. Don’t use them to add additional areas to your paper.
If you’d like further guidance on putting together an abstract, you can find some useful resources at the end of this post.
3) Fit to the Timeslot
We’re also looking for papers that are presentable within a 20-minute timeslot. Some papers we received proposed ideas that sounded too difficult to explore in the time allowed. One rule of thumb is to imagine 20 minutes as roughly 2000 spoken words. What can you fit into that?
If you’re concerned that your idea, or choice of text doesn’t work, don’t be tempted to hedge by listing too many texts or lots of ideas. If you say you’re going to analyse a text, we’ll expect you to analyse that text. If we feel you’ve listed too many texts to analyse in 20 minutes, we’re unlikely to accept your paper. Instead, bear in mind that all papers are expected to change a little before a conference – provided that your main topic or key text is the same as what you’ve been accepted to present on.
4) Your Ability to Complete the Paper
Remember, your abstract will be presented anonymously to the committee. They can only judge your final paper by what they have in front of them. Poor grammar and misspellings are warning signs to conference organisers. Misspelling the names of key scholars or authors – even missing out a co-author altogether – are big red flags. Like a badly-constructed argument, they not only indicate your paper may not be presentable by the time of the conference, but that you may be unable to speak knowledgeably on the topic for 20 minutes.
Make sure you proofread your abstract – or get a colleague to look at it before submission. You’ll be grateful you did.
A Note on Submission Guidelines
These rules about ability to complete a paper don’t just apply to the quality of the abstract. Your ability to keep to the Submission Guidelines also tells us whether your final paper will keep to the timeslot and resemble the paper we accepted from you. For example, if your abstract is clearly much longer than the stated word count (300 words for our 2018 event), your paper may be too long, hence this often results in an immediate rejection.
Additionally, pay close attention to any notes in the Call for Papers about the formats, US/UK spelling, or fonts accepted. This not only makes things easier for hard-working conference administrators, who may have to compile abstract documents from several different formats. It may also help you anticipate possible issues with the display of presentation files at the host institution.
Make sure you check the Submission Guidelines before hitting send. Check you have included a title, an abstract to the required word length, along with any requested biography or contact information, and that all files are in the requested file format.
Finally, if you have any questions about submitting your abstract to an event, please get in touch with the event organisers sooner rather than later.
What an Abstract is Not
We’ve talked a lot about what we’re looking for in an abstract. Here are some things that an abstract for a literary event is not:
An abstract is not an essay plan. We don’t need to know exactly what you’re doing at each point in the paper. Instead, an abstract is more like a summary of your intended paper, putting it in the context of both the conference theme and current research in your topic.
An abstract is not the plot of a text. Instead, focus on conveying how you intend to use the text to explore your ideas, touching on any specific aspects that support your argument.
An abstract is not your biography. We don’t need to know that your paper is from a PhD project – a lot of papers are. The one exception to this is a creative paper abstract, where we expect some reference to your creative piece.
An abstract is not just a way in to an event. Again, if your abstract is accepted, you receive an invitation to present your paper, and if you accept that invitation, we do expect you to present on the topic outlined in the abstract. Papers often change a little between abstract acceptance and paper completion, but a finished paper should always resemble the accepted abstract. If you are unsure if your final paper does this, contact the organisers as soon as possible.
If you’re looking for examples of symposium and conference abstracts, you can find the accepted abstracts for our 2017 event.
If you’d like some advice on how to start writing an abstract, here are some more resources you might find useful:
Dr Koster’s Short and Snappy Guide to how to write an abstract. This is a useful resource for Humanities students whatever kind of abstract you’re writing, especially the ‘Conference Abstract’ section.
ACPI’s Abstract Guidelines for Papers. While questions 6 and 9 will not apply to most literary symposium papers, the rest of the 12 questions are a great final check for your abstract.
Professor Koopman’s article on How to Write an Abstract. It is directed towards Science papers, but contains some useful points for humanities students under the ‘Motivation’ and ‘Other Considerations’ sections.