Abstract Impressions Revisited: Stating the Bleeding Obvious

I had a bit of an epiphany just now. It may be that this is news to only me, but, turns out, it’s a lot easier to give a conference paper if in your abstract you set small, manageable limits for what you’re planning to cover. Especially if you go over it a couple of times to make sure that it isn’t too big in scope.

I often treat abstracts as a way of getting a foot in the door – often, if I’m honest, kind of at the last minute – and that’s fine, because a conference paper is a work in progress, and of course it’s going to change in the process of preparing it, and so it’s possibly setting yourself up for a fall to think you have to crystallise absolutely everything about what you want to say in time for the abstract deadline.

However, I have recently realised (through fucking up – the traditional way human beings learn anything about anything) that this can lead to sloppiness in conceptualising the paper itself (rather than the abstract, which is fine to be rough round the edges) and thenceforth to trying to present something you cannot: presenting yourself with an impossible task, in fact.

A conference I was at last year, in spite of all the bloody times between starting my MA and now when I have been reminded (and reminded myself) that you cannot, should not, do not try and say everything about all your ideas about a big topic in one conference paper, I still found myself trying to do exactly that, and, whilst I don’t think it was an unmitigated shambles (it was like maybe 92% shambles) I really could have served myself and my audience better simply by setting myself a tighter focus right at the beginning, at the germ of the paper, the abstract. Instead of, you know, finding myself on the day trying to talk about ten things at once for every single slide and ending up with a big mess in which I didn’t explain anything properly because NO TIME.

It’s not that a looser abstract will inevtaibly doom you to failure, but a tighter one will give you a better framework in which to succeed.

An abstract sets you parameters; it gives you a set of lines to colour inside of. It’s not that those lines are indelible and can’t be rubbed out and changed, it’s that without them you may get yourself into a scribbly muddle, like wot I did.

Image

A scribbly mess, yesterday

There’s nothing wrong with the sales pitch really, but, if you can bear with my horrible mixed metaphors, what you want is more like a map or a menu. The trouble with the former is sometimes you get in with your twin pack of chamois leathers but once you’re inside trying to seal the deal, you look in the bag you find you’re a bit light on cleaning products and having to improvise with “how about these lovely stainless steel cutlery sets, madam?”

Whereas of course, it helps a lot if the contents of the ACTUAL PAPER ITSELF are defined by what you said in your abstract  — which they can in a much more immediate and practical way than say a thesis which is going to evolve massively since you told the university whatever pack of conjecture you told them to be allowed to be where you are now, figuring it out as you go along.

[follows on, vaguely, from https://predominantlymisc.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/is-so-mid-to-late-80s/]

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