27 October 2011

How not to write a conference abstract! Mundane information you forgot you knew! For academics (mostly).

One often unacknowledged skill in academia, publishing, journalism, marketing and motivational speaking is the secret art of writing a truly great abstract.

To the initiated, the word “abstract” instantly denotes a short summary of completed research. It implies a description of the general questions asked by the study, a claim about how best to resolve them, and, finally, the outcome of doing so. Abstracts appear in a variety of forms. They describe the plot of books; preview films; headline journal articles; frame grant proposals; and explain what new products do. They tell the audience what to expect. Notice that the important ingredient is always the same. The abstract is a teaser – it should make the reader instantly desire to know more.

ABSTRACT (an adjective): thought apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances. Expressing a quality or characteristic apart from any specific object or instance. Difficult to understand; abstruse.

Consider the conference abstract. In comparison to the other times the abstract is used, the conference abstract appears somewhat unglamorous. On the one hand, it is unlikely that you’ll get a job because you wrote a good one. On the other hand, the ability to write a good abstract likely means that you are developing professionally and are self-aware enough to know that other people do not instantly understand why they should care about your questions, admire your brilliance, or buy what you are selling. Write without awareness of this issue, and it is likely that fewer people will turn up for your lecture. It really is simple: your audience needs to know why they should come.

Don’t misunderstand this observation. While it is important to make people want to know more about your accomplishments, it is also foolhardy to offer more than you can deliver. The art of good abstract writing is almost certainly in selling your findings and their importance. But pigs don’t have wings; don’t promise what you cannot deliver. As long, however, as you explain why your findings are important and why people should care, you are probably on safe ground. In that case, the worst thing that will happen during your conference presentation is that someone will ask you a question that shows how you have inferred too much and thus have more to do.

If, however, you have promised the moon, then one of the following scenarios will likely unfold: (1) People will be disappointed and ask no questions. (2) People will be disappointed and ask lots of questions, but after your presentation and behind your back. (3) And worse, you will say something like “I’m not actually sure why my abstract says that I will do ‘x’, because actually my paper will be about ‘y’.” Or, (4) you will fake it. You will pretend that ‘x’ is ‘y.’ Some audience members, likely those who matter most to your professional success, will know that you did tried to make ‘x’ seem like ‘y’ and will be annoyed. Others will not know and will feel confused, alienated, and bored. Just because there are nice people who will come up afterwards and say “good job” doesn’t mean that you actually did a “good job.”

How I learned to write an Abstract

I didn’t. I’m sure there were resources available to me in graduate school, but I never sought them out. I don’t recall anyone ever actually sitting down with me and explaining why writing great abstracts really mattered. Nor do I recall anyone ever expressing to me what would happen to my abstract once I submitted it to a conference committee, journal, or grant agency. Instead I just started writing them. And I’ve never thought about them mechanically at all. I wasn’t aware that there was an art to good abstract writing. I always assumed – until now – that because my papers were accepted, I was doing a decent job. I’ll shortly explain why I now think that my assumption was wrong.

Now I really want to stress that I don’t think I am particularly good at writing abstracts. In other words, I’m not going to patronize you by promising some magic elixir that will instantly transform how you approach writing them. I’m betting that you’re like me in that – until now – you had never really thought all that much about them. Like me, you are busy, and you have probably thrown them together at the last minute, submitted them, and not thought about them again until the conference approached.

This method is probably terrible. My use of Twitter, by way of an illustrative digression, has taught me that how you present 160 characters can really matter. Do it right and people read and re-tweet your tweet. Do it badly and no one pays any attention at all. Of course, paper titles matter, but conferences are short events, and people want to attend lectures that really matter to them. The discriminating audience – the audience you are competing for - reads the abstracts. The title catches their eye, but it is the abstract that motivates them to pick your session over alternatives. And there are always alternatives!

I should have figured this out a long time ago.

I made a quite simple mistake in graduate school. I thought that my inability to sometimes decipher abstracts reflected my own short-comings as a would-be entrant to the world of ideas. That’s an easy mistake to make. Graduate schools are filled with brilliant people, and the default assumption for many graduate students is that: “everyone else knows what’s going-on, so I’d better fake it.”
When you add that the credentials of the speaker are often presented alongside the paper title and abstract, certain meritocratic biases enter the picture. It may be a totally stupid assumption – but how many of us have made the fatal error of asking “where the hell is that university” instead of “what is this lecture about?”

- Another digression: wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the relationship between the perceived value of speakers’ universities and lecture attendance at academic conferences?

That’s awful. But look at it from your perspective as a conference attendee. Let’s say its 1:30pm on a Saturday. Every session you are interested in attending will be taking place after 3:30pm. In other words, you have options and feel ambivalent. A glass of wine might tempt you. At this moment, assuming that you actually go to a session, you must discern a reason for why you might wish to go to one paper over another. It’s possible that you will really focus on the various ideas on offer. It’s equally possible that you will pick the session for half-a-dozen wholly arbitrary reasons, of which, perceived prestige may well be a factor. The means for you as an abstract writer to short-circuit those arbitrary reasons is to prepare a great abstract – the ends, of course, are to get people you don’t know, to hear your work.

Does an Abstract really have Basic Components?

An abstract is a summary or an epitome of a statement or document. The word arose in the early modern period, which is not surprising, given that it was that world that first began to encounter the problem of the mass production of literature. It was common then for people to offer a brief précis of arguments, letters, legal documents, or longer essays and articles. This activity became still more commonplace with the advent of journals and magazines purely intended to review authors’ works and discoveries. Book reviews and abstracts were a means for busy professionals and the curious masses alike to keep current. That’s what Reader Digest is really all about.

Publications wholly devoted to abstracts became quite popular in the nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, editors of science journals routinely asked members of their editorial committees to review competing titles, abstract their most important papers, and pass those abstracts onto their own audience. This labor was especially useful in the context of foreign language literature, although the Oxford English Dictionary adds a rather amusing 1962 usage of the word from the medical journal Lancet: “Have you ever tried doing abstracts? I once did—for about a year. It was the American articles that caused me the most anguish.”

But does an abstract possess common features? Creating a template for a good abstract is very difficult. Lots of websites mention that it is necessary to declare the problem, describe methods and results, and hand-wave at the conclusion. Don’t give away too much! Someone might scoop you. If they – the potential audience – know everything, then they won’t come. You see? There is tacit knowledge involved. You need to possess a feeling for the game; a sense of how to foreshadow a really good story.

A Story about How I Suddenly Discovered Abstract Writing Really Matters

It all began on a dark and stormy mid-afternoon; I was stuck in my office examining a software system I had been given access to in order to rate hundreds of conference abstracts. I’m on the program committee. Let me stress that word again: hundreds. The software was totally intuitive. I knew who the authors were, where they came from, and what they proposed to offer as a paper at the conference. What they did not know, unless they had been in my position, was that I had a little drop down menu, where I recorded “excellent,” “good,”, “average,” “poor,” “very poor,” and “reject.”

Let’s talk about the intangibles here. How do you define “average”? Why would a “very poor” abstract not automatically be rejected? You see there are competing interests. To put it in the language of a thespian: “the show must go on”. So depending upon how many abstracts are proposed, it may be necessary to accept truly terrible ones simply to fill out the schedule. On the other hand, the “rejects” are pretty easy. They say something so completely mind-blowingly offensive that it is impossible to imagine that anyone even thinks something like that. Or they are written in a way that alerts you to the fact that the author has no standing to make his or her claims (it’s amateurish). Or, perhaps finally, the paper is clearly not really appropriate for the conference – it’s a paper on applied particle physics and your conference is about bio-molecular science.

The other categories seemingly become more arbitrary. Although if you have read Pierre Bourdieu, then you will be no doubt be aware that most of us for social, cultural, and class-based reasons, are quite capable of recognizing and approximating “excellence.” It is sinister, but don’t worry, even though most people don’t know why they know these things, there are ways (I suspect) you can short-circuit such prejudices in your favor.

In any case, a committee pools its ratings: one person alone does not make the decision. I am sure, however, that any outspoken powerful member of the committee could engage in retaliation and exclude people on the basis of personal animosity. We know from history that marginal members of communities (e.g. women or minorities) have been frequent victims of such abuse of power. And, I suppose, preferential treatment is just as likely. Nothing like that has happened with my committee, but I do think it remains a risk.

Digression: Why this software doesn’t require blind-review is beyond me.

So what happened? What did I learn?

It is both interesting and challenging to read hundreds of abstracts and make decisions about them. The general features that many online sources describe as essential to a good abstract are necessary. But along the way it became clear to me that the really successful abstracts framed their presentations in two ways.

Firstly, their authors mentioned somewhere in the abstract how their study was a part of their own larger research program. That was important, because sometimes the way in which the study could inform a larger program was not obvious at all. That made the abstract intriguing.

Secondly, successful authors also mentioned how their study expanded upon larger debates in their field of specialist interest. But they did not embark on boilerplate explanations of why their paper mattered to their specialty. In other words, I could not have written the explanation of why their research was important. (That’s a great test: if anyone could say it based upon the other information available in your abstract, then it is boilerplate.) Instead, they brought real clarity to their abstracts by breaking those large debates into Library of Congress subject headings. They used those larger, more recognizable categories to tell their story, even as they flagged up their methodology, perspective, and position through reference to them.

The effect of introducing both of these different frames was that the more “abstract” elements of the “abstract” became concrete. It was possible to see how the paper connected to other papers, themes, discussions, and problems. In other words, the authors found and utilized keywords that most people – perhaps especially students – could spot and see as significant. The author’s recognition of the necessity and value of weaving those keywords into their story made the job of reading their abstract and identifying its virtues easier. I also suspect that they were able to write them fairly quickly. Indeed, once you recognize how you’re paper complements those subject classifications, your job of explaining the importance of your paper probably becomes easier.

Like I said – I’ve never been particularly good at writing abstracts. But I think I will be better as a result of having had the experience of assessing them. I’m the first to admit that it is a subjective enterprise. I think – I hope – that through learning about my experience reading and attempting discern the better abstracts from the poorer ones, you will have a little stronger sense of the life of your abstract once you send it on. The difference this will make in your life is really impossible to know. For myself, I’m betting a series of good conference abstracts will make you standout in a crowd. That may lead to future opportunities that are more important than conference attendance. But, if nothing else, I hope at 1:30pm on the Saturday of the next conference you are at, you’ll think, which of these abstracts really frames the issues and be in the audience. Hopefully I’ll be the one presenting.