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Essay Writing Tactics: Abstracts

Updated on March 3, 2014
Teenage Students Writing on Book
Teenage Students Writing on Book | Source

One of the things I do in my work as a literary scholar is attend conferences--gatherings of researchers at which they present and discuss ideas and network. The ideas presented at those conferences (conference-length papers such as I have discussed) are not simply brought into being, however. They have to go through a process of approval before being invited for presentation at the conference in question. Most often, this approval requires the submission of an abstract.

It may seem counter-intuitive to draft an abstract before writing the paper. After all, the term "abstract" also refers to a summary of a piece, usually presented at either the beginning or the end of the piece. This kind of abstract is necessarily written after the piece is finished, as a work not yet made cannot be summarized. For submission to conferences, however, the abstract is less a summary and more a proposal, a statement by the writer that there is an idea worth testing and that may be considered for development and presentation among other, similar ideas. It is to that kind of abstract, the paper proposal, that this hub is directed.

Common Features of Proposal Abstracts

The paper proposal abstract is a common academic genre, not seldom requested in literature classes and almost universally required of participants in research conferences. As such, it has a number of common features that can be taken as a template; individual examples may well deviate from that template in some regards, but most will have most or all of the features of it.

Typically, a paper proposal abstract will include the following information, generally in the order below:

  • Identifying Information
  • Critical Context
  • Argument Outline
  • Addenda

Identifying Information

The identifying information for a paper-proposal abstract will vary depending on the agency to which the proposal is made. Typically, however, the author's name and institutional affiliation* will be requested, as will the title of the proposed paper. It is also helpful to include the date of submission as well as a note indicating what the paper is submitted to; if nothing else, it will help the author keep straight what is going where.

Frequently, the identifying information will compose either a heading or a cover page (never both). As a heading, the author's name and institutional affiliation, date, and the note about where the abstract is going will appear in the upper left corner of the first page of the abstract (abstracts are commonly only one page, however), with name/affiliation, date, and note each getting a line; the title should generally be horizontally centered on the next line, with the text to follow.

Cover pages will typically include the same information, although it will tend to be centered on the page both vertically and horizontally. Abstracts sent with cover pages are typically expected to be reviewed anonymously; the cover page allows for the information to be separated from the abstract itself and restored later. In such cases, the title of the proposed paper needs to appear on the text of the abstract itself, usually appended to a page number, so that it can be restored to the identifying information later on.

As ever, individual instruction sets may vary; those provided by specific agencies should be followed when sending abstracts to those agencies.

*Institutional affiliation applies to those who are students, staff, or faculty at colleges and universities, or who hold formal positions in research organizations such as libraries, laboratories, and some hospitals. Those many who are not among such groups can present themselves as "independent scholars," a useful designation that opens up some funding opportunities from time to time.

Critical Context

Ideally, the kind of work an abstract proposes emerges from consideration of the work that has already been done in the world. Accordingly, abstracts do well to explicitly acknowledge the work from which they emerge, offering a critical context into which the arguments to come can be embedded. Given the relative brevity of an abstract, the context will not be greatly detailed, but it will still need to create the impression that the author of the abstract--and the paper to proceed from it--is solidly grounded in prevailing understandings of the topic the abstract treats.

Rarely is it the case that any modern scholar is the first to treat a given topic (although modern scholars studying modern phenomena may well be the first). As such, authors who wish to propose papers in abstracts are almost always able to look through what prior scholars have said about the topic, identifying major trends in the previous research. Offering summary statements of those tendencies allows the author of the abstract to demonstrate engagement with and knowledge of the relevant fields, establishing the critical context. Such phrasings as "A number of scholars, including Smith, Johnson, and Hildasdottir, have argued..." work well and are fairly conventional; they bespeak outside reading and awareness of the rhetorical conventions of the scholarly world, both of which ease acceptance of the abstract.

Multiple tendencies can be identified to form a solid paragraph that outlines the critical context, or a more extended summary of a single tendency can do so. The former is more useful if the author intends to strike a new direction in treatment of the topic. The latter works better if the paper proposed by the abstract will argue against an existing line of inquiry; in such a case, the extended summary of the critical context should focus on that against which the paper will argue.

For those authors who are so fortunate as to be the first to treat a given topic, critical context will need to focus somewhat differently. If other items similar to the topic have been treated, then the critical context will need to address the trends in how those similar items have been addressed; similar can refer here both to commonalities of form and commonalities of production. For example, if a scholar wishes to treat book Þ by author Ð, and there are treatments of book Æ by author Ð, then the criticism of Æ can be taken as the basis for work on Þ. If similar items have not been treated, then the critical context can be replaced with a brief summary or description of the item being treated.

Argument Outline

More important than the critical context is the outline of the argument to be made in the paper itself. This will also take the form of a summary--although it introduces the problem of trying to summarize a piece that has not been written yet. (Conference papers in the academic humanities are somewhat notorious for shifting focus between abstract submission and presentation; it happens.) Indeed, part of the impetus for the critical context noted above is to oblige the author to spend time with the idea to be argued before proposing it, hopefully narrowing it and defining it before beginning to work on it in earnest; the idea and argument will, in theory, not be so mysterious that they cannot be at all forecast.

Too, there will be some adjustments to the basic summary form if it is to be used as the argument outline in an abstract. The identifying information for which summaries call need not appear in the argument outline; that is taken care of in the identifying information discussed above. Instead, the argument outline will need to begin with a graceful transition that leads into the statement of thesis that will be tested in the paper being proposed; that thesis should follow quickly. It should then be followed by statements that suggest the major points that the paper will use to test and support that thesis, much as a regular summary paraphrases the main points of the piece it summarizes.

The conclusion of the argument outline will differ from the structure of a common summary. Instead of the evaluation of the writing I suggest in writing summaries in themselves, it ought to move in the direction that the conclusion of a broader essay takes. That is to say that it ought to move towards a suggestion of the importance of the thesis's validity. One of the things that makes research worth reading or hearing is the sense that it can be applied somehow to the development of yet more knowledge. Asserting that the idea being treated in the paper proposed by the abstract has significance beyond itself, and doing so in a way that makes sense, makes it far more likely that the paper proposed will be accepted.


From time to time, abstracts will need to be accompanied by other materials, by addenda. Common addenda include managerial comments for conferences (e.g., will audio-visual equipment be needed, will copies of handouts be needed) and biographies of the paper's proposer (almost always under one hundred words, and not seldom under fifty). Others may be called for by the agency to which the abstract is submitted; they should be offered upon such requests.

Whatever is requested as identifying information, addenda, or throughout the paper, a successful abstract can lead to the opportunity to travel to new places for conferences and meeting new people at them. It can lead to publication. And it can lead to the effective increase of human knowledge, which is something always to be desired.

© 2014 Folgha


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