Writing a Great Conference Abstract

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Conferences are, to my mind, one of the best perks of being in academia. In a department/university like ours, which is able to partially or fully fund travel, conferences turn into a treat. As I like to call them, academic vacay! You get to go to a cool place you’ve likely never been and meet interesting people (grad students and faculty!) from all over. So, how do we get to this magical land?


Emily Shreve moderating the “Activism and Public Humanities” panel. Photo credit: Adam Heidebrink-Bruno

It starts with the CFP (Call for Papers). Sometimes, you might come across the call for papers through a department-wide email, a recommendation from a colleague, or a list serve/Facebook group/Twitter feed you follow. Otherwise, turn to the database at UPenn, which has the most comprehensive list of CFPs.


Step 1: Look for a conference you’d like to attend.

I’d suggest two types of conferences in particular: the major field-based conferences and graduate conferences. By major field-based conferences, I mean things like Conference on College Composition and Communication (4Cs), the Modernist Studies Association conference, C19 (Nineteenth-century Americanists’ conference), the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference (ASECS), or things like MLA or regional MLA conferences (NEMLA, around here). These are important if you intend to go on to the PhD and pursue the tenure track, in terms of getting to know your field and the major players. Graduate conferences, however, are great for when you’re starting out. I’d particularly recommend a graduate conference, like our own LSJ conference, for an MA student’s first time—they’re often a bit smaller and cater specifically to beginning scholars. It’s a nice way to get your feet wet in the conference presentation pool.

Once you’ve identified a conference you’d like to attend, it’s time to write the abstract! There are no guaranteed formulas, but keeping the following guidelines in mind will help you write the best abstract you can.

  1. Follow the Rules

A Call for Papers will give guidelines about what the organizers would like to see. Most importantly, look for the word limit and stick to it! Look for additional instructions, like omitting identifying details—some conferences prefer to read abstracts with the author anonymous—and if they prefer .doc or .pdf format. Tip: we don’t specify in the LSJ conference CFP, which means either format is fine. When in doubt, though, always feel free to send both as attachments; it shows consideration for the committee and can help make their lives a tiny bit easier.


  1. Focus Your Argument

Go ahead and follow every piece of advice you’ve ever given your students about writing a strong thesis statement. Your goal with this abstract is to show what you will write about (topic) and what you will say about it (argument). Also consider why this argument is important; are you filling a gap in the criticism? Is it a topic of urgent social import? Etc. This is a lot to cover in a small space…


Nope. Not a great abstract-writing strategy.

  1. Concision

…To this end, be concise!!! You have very few words (typically around 300) to convey lots of ideas, so omit any needless, redundant, or filler words. They’re dead weight—get to the point.


  1. Hook your reader

Try to make your abstract memorable. Obviously, you think your idea is interesting, or you wouldn’t be writing about it, so communicate how fascinating/new/innovative your argument is to the committee!


Ideally, your abstract should be as memorable as a drag queen impersonating Bjork eating a piece of paper.

5. Take it to the Writing Center!

An abstract is ideal for the writing center. It is short enough that you can spend your entire half hour delving into the details. Plus, you get a trusted colleague (and often one with tons of conference experience) to render an opinion! Since our fellow grad students have a wealth of experience, we might as well take advantage!

With all of this in mind, please consider submitting to the 2017 LSJ Conference! The deadline has been extended to October 31, and the CFP can be found here. This is a great conference for first-time presenters, because it is a particularly friendly, supportive environment; it’s also great for more advanced grad students whose research interests are particularly invested in literature and social justice (most, if not all, of us?).


Submit an abstract to lsjlehigh@gmail.com!

Further Reading:

Ed Simon’s previous Drown Unbound posts about abstracts: A Few Humble Observations on Conference Abstracts: Part 1 and A Few Humble Observations on Conference Abstracts: Part 2

The Professor Is In: How to Write a Paper Abstract

How to Write a Conference Abstract (or How NOT to Write One)

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