How-To(sday): How to Write a Paper or Conference Proposal Abstract

(Tuesday Post Category: Strategizing Your Success in Academia)

Tuesdays I will occasionally feature “How-To(sday)” posts,  short  guides to certain genres of academic writing.  I’m happy to take requests for these. Just email me at

Today we look at the paper/conference proposal abstract.  This is a critical genre of writing for scholars in the humanities and social sciences.  Usually between 200 and 500 words long, it is a short abstract that describes research/a talk/a journal article that you are GOING to write.  This is in contrast to the abstract of the research/dissertation/article that you have already written.

Mastering the paper abstract is one of the most important skills you can acquire while still a graduate student.  Learn the tricks of the paper abstract and you have the ticket in hand to a steady ride of conference and publishing opportunities.  These are the conferences and publications that a few years down the line, set your c.v. apart from your peers, and land you that job.


The paper abstract is highly formulaic.  Let’s break it down.  It needs to show the following:

1) big picture problem or topic widely debated in your field.

2) gap in the literature on this topic.

3) your project filling the gap.

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your original argument.

6) a strong concluding sentence.


Each of these six elements is mostly likely contained in a single sentence.

Sentence 1:  Big picture topic that is being intensively debated in your field/fields, possibly with reference to scholars (“The question of xxx has been widely debated in xxx field, with scholars such as xxx and xx arguing  xxx]”).

Sentence 2:  Gap in the literature on this topic.  This GAP IN KNOWLEDGE is very, very bad, and detrimental to the welfare of all right thinking people.  This is the key sentence of the abstract. (“However, these works/articles/arguments/perspectives have not adequately addressed the issue of xxxx.”).

Sentence 3:  Your project fills this gap (“My paper addresses the issue of xx with special attention to xxx”).

Sentence 4+ (length here depends on your total word allowance, and more sentences may be possible):  The specific material that you are examining–your data, your texts, etc. ( “Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at xxx and xxx, in order to show xxxx.  I will discuss xx and xx, and juxtapose them against xx and xx, in order to reveal the previously misunderstood connections between xx and xx.”)

Sentence 5:  Your main argument and contribution, concisely and clearly stated. (“I argue that…”)

Sentence 6:  Strong Conclusion!  (“In conclusion, this project, by closely examining xxxxx, sheds new light on the neglected/little recognized/rarely acknowledged issue of xxxxx. “).


Start by writing out your own version of the sentences above, succinctly if you can, but without stressing about your word limit too much.

Once that is done, edit to your word count.

One of the key points of the paper abstract is that it is very short, and every word must count. No fluff, no filler, no blather.

Remove wordy phrases like, “it can be argued that,” “Is is commonly acknowledged that,” “I wish to propose the argument that”—these are all empty filler. Work in short, declarative sentences.

If you are wondering—how do I make an argument when I haven’t written the paper yet?  Well–that’s the challenge.  Come up with a plausible, reasonable argument for the purposes of the abstract.  If you end up writing something different in the actual paper itself, that’s ok!

Make sure that your final product shows your:

1) big picture

2) gap in the literature

3) your project filling the gap

4) the specific material that you examine in the paper.

5) your argument.

6) A strong conclusion.


For your reference, here are two abstracts that demonstrate how the principles above work.  Each has parts missing, as noted.  Inclusion would have strengthened the abstract:

1.  Access to marriage or marriage-like institutions, and the recognition of lesbian and gay familial lives more generally, has become central to lesbian and gay equality struggles in recent years [Sentence 1–Big problem].  [Sentence 2–Gap in literature MISSING here].  This paper considers what utopian fiction has to offer by way of alternatives to this drive for ever more regulation of the family [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. Through analysis of Marge Piercy’s classic feminist novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, and Thomas Bezucha’s award-winning gay film, Big Eden, alternative ways of conceptualizing the place of law in lesbian and gay familial lives are considered and explored [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. Looking to utopia as a method for rethinking the place of law in society offers rich new perspectives on the issue of lesbian and gay familial recognition [Sentence 5–Her argument, weak]. I argue that utopian fiction signals that the time is now ripe for a radical reevaluation of how we recognize and regulate not only same-sex relationships but all family forms [Sentence 6– a strong conclusion.].

[Imagining a Different World: Reconsidering the Regulation of Family Lives. Rosie Harding. Law and Literature. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Fall 2010) (pp. 440-462)]

2.  History, it seems, has to attain a degree of scientificity, resident in the truth-value of its narrative, before it can be called history, as distinguished from the purely literary or political [Sentence 1–Big problem]. Invoking the work of Jacques Rancière and Hayden White, this essay investigates the manner in which history becomes a science through a detour that gives speech a regime of truth [Sentence 2–Literature, no gap mentioned]. It does this by exploring the nineteenth-century relationship of history to poetry and to truth in the context of the emerging discipline of history in Bengal [Sentence 3–Her project fills the gap]. The question is discussed in relation to a patriotic poem, Palashir Yuddha (1875), accused of ahistoricality, as well as to a defense made by Bengal’s first professional historian, Jadunath Sarkar, against a similar charge in the context of Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s historical novels [Sentence 4–Her specific material in the paper]. That the relationship of creativity to history is a continuing preoccupation for the historian is finally explored through Ranajit Guha’s invocation of Tagore in “History at the Limit of World-History” (2002) [Sentence 5–Her argument, weakly stated].  [MISSING Sentence 6—a strong  conclusion].

[History in Poetry: Nabinchandra Sen’s “Palashir Yuddha” and the Question of Truth. Rosinka Chaudhuri. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 66, No. 4 (Nov., 2007) (pp. 897-918)]

Good luck with your abstract!! And be sure and ask the Professor for help if you need it.



How-To(sday): How to Write a Paper or Conference Proposal Abstract — 82 Comments

  1. Having read several posts/articles on how to write a conference abstact, I found yours to be particularly helpful. Thanks for writing it! But I was wondering: is there was any particular formatting to be observed in written abstacts? What spacing is expected? Where should the name of the abstract author appear? Could you mention a bit about that?

    • In my experience, the conference will specify their requirements very clearly and precisely. But if these are not specified, then submit doublespaced, with title and name of author first, and the abstract immediately following, with no white space between.

      • Thank you so very much, Prof, indeed your work is the best assistance for me in terms of Abstract writing. But I do not quite understand GAP IN THE KNOWLEDGE ON THIS TOPIC.
        Please Prof can you help me throw more light to it.


  2. Pingback: Writing a Conference Proposal | Writing Center | USF Tampa Libraries

  3. This is by far the most succinct/helpful resource I’ve found for writing an abstract proposal! So, many thanks for that.

    Anyways, I have a potentially silly question: Is there a need for a potential title for the paper? Or, should your proposal simply be the body of the abstract?

    Again, thanks for your help!

    • Generally there are posted requirements for the submission, and these include a title (often with spacing and font size specified). if not, yes, always include the title.

  4. Hello! Thank you for this post. I am currently working on an abstract for a conference. The conference organizers, however, have asked for a 250 word proposal and a 100 word abstract. What is the difference? Thanks for your help!

    • the 100 is very bare-bones–mostly just disclosing the topic, the method and the core argument. it’s like a
      “memory-jog” for people reviewing apps.

      the 250 will give all the info that I describe in this post.

  5. I refer to this post whenever I need to write an abstract. Every proposal I’ve written following the advice here has been accepted– I’m up to three now!

    Do you have any tricks for the “research/dissertation/article that you have already written”?

    • Unfortunately there are no tricks for writing a dissertation. But with this abstract template I literally never got turned down for a conference.

      • Oops– this is what I get for typing on my phone! I meant to say the *abstract* for the “research/dissertation/article that you have already written”!

  6. Dr. Karen, does it matter when you submit your abstract for the conference? I have a deadline two weeks from now and I am still correcting my abstract. If I get it in right before the deadline will that affect my chances of my paper being accepted?

  7. I have only one week to submit an abstract, I was so upset and lost where to start. I am so glad that I found this article, it is really motivating and I hope it’ll work for me.
    Thanks a lot Dr. Karen

  8. Thank you for this post. I am writing a dissertation abstract for a post-doc application. I spent an entire paragraph providing the big picture and another paragraph on the gap. Revising now!

  9. Thanks the article is brief and gives clear guidance to someone who is trying a paper for the first time.
    It will be useful to me

  10. I noticed this template uses “I” quite a few times, I’ve been warned against it elsewhere, but is it actually good to voice in the first person?

    • This is very much discipline-specific. In cultural anthro, where I come from, it’s very common–perhaps the norm–but in other fields not. Be sure and follow the conventions in your field, which you can check by accessing the abstracts from previous years conferences.

  11. Thank you so much for this post! It has helped me so much.
    How does one do an in-text citation of a scholar’s works when referring to that scholar’s specific ideas in the abstract? For example:
    “Although _name of scholar_ (2003) has addressed the issue of _____, the gaps in the research are evident.”
    Would the date in brackets be enough? Is it appropriate to include a Works Cited? (I’m applying to present a paper at a conference, and was only asked to submit an abstract.)
    Thanks again.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this how-to guide! Your examples are helpful, and breaking it down by sentence is a really good way of giving us ‘baby-steps’. I was trying to get my boyfriend (who’s 3rd year BSc) to help me to write an abstract, because I know he writes them all the time, but they are obviously completely different…

    I am SO GLAD I found this source.

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  14. hi
    By far the best -how to guide- abstract writing example!!!!.
    I have a few questions which I am not very clear about. Glad if you could help me…
    1. Is it a necessitate to cite other scholarly work in an explicit way rather than briefly mentioning scholars have not investigated the issue very well?
    2. Also what to include as part of the methodology?
    3. Do you need to include that the paper is based on an ongoing masters/PhD work or funded projects etc if it is so?

    am so glad I found this link!!!!

  15. I am reviewing the submission rules for a CFP and conference. They’ve asked for ‘a summary of the proposed research, no longer than 1000 words’ but I don’t see a specific reference to the abstract except where it instructs that ‘submission of an abstract is viewed as commitment to complete the work…’. Does this mean that the summary is in essence the abstract or is an abstract separately required?

  16. This is helpful for upcoming scholars, it is ideal material for mentoring in academia, with this, you will be having thousand of students that will learn greatly from you as they prepare for succesful acadmic pursuit.

  17. Dear Professor,
    Thank you for this great article. I was able to gather information to construct the abstract after reading it. I want to submit an abstract for an upcoming conference and there is hardly 20 days left for the abstract submission deadline. I am still editing the abstract as I don’t have the full paper right now. Is it possible that you looking into my abstract before submitting for the conference ?

  18. Thank you so much for the helpful website! It’s definitely great for grad students.

    I have one question though. When sending in an abstract to a conference, should you put the abstract in a manila envelope or a regular mailing envelope? Does this make a difference?

    Thanks again for this awesome website!

  19. Hi! Thanks for the useful tips!

    I am preparing an abstract for a conference currently, but I’m confused about whether I should even try. They want a long text (1000 words) + graphs and main results at this stage I only have some preliminary analysis done, but it sounds like it would not be enough. What stage does the paper have to be to apply for a conference?


    • Hi Karen,
      This was succinct and helpful. However, an artist friend and I would like to submit an abstract that would include our own research, photos and possibly poetry or film for the following
      call –

      The objective of this interdisciplinary, multicultural conference is to examine, celebrate, and enjoy the variety of ways in which food has been represented in the humanities and the arts throughout time around the planet.

      Writers, artists and poets, scholars in literature, history, art history and film, cooks, psychologists, sociologist, anthropologists, and more are invited to contribute to this dialogue.

      I don’t want to take up a lot of your time and effort but if you have any advice or counsel, it would be deeply appreciated.

      Many thanks,

  20. Hi
    Just wanted thank you for the valuable guidance provided on abstract writing. Found it very explicit. And of course wrote two papers and both got accepted. Have to say it is because of this format!!! Can’t go wrong with it…. 🙂 Thank you very much. Keep doing this great job for students like us…
    And am So glad I found this.!!!!

    Best wishes…

    Best wishes…

  21. Eish, I still find myself wanting when it comes to research. I am a storyteller who has ventured into an interesting topic on the role of indigenous storytelling in maternal health education. One moment am positive that it is a researchable topic, the next moment I am unable to put it down convincingly. I want to market it at a conference next month, my proposal passed but now putting this together is a challenge. please give me confidence that I can do it.

  22. my main problem is that I can talk better than writing. I write too much and very alarming sentences. Funny because I am a language teacher who always taught learners to keep it short and simple.

  23. I just needed to adapt a few things to write an abstract in Natural Sciences, but the overall idea could be perfectly applied.


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  26. This was extremely helpful. I was writing my first proposal and didn’t know what to do or where to start. I just finished writing it and it would not be anywhere near as good as it is without this blog! You Rock!

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  29. I will be submitting an abstract for a conference next week and this is really helpful! I am more motivated, thank you for posting this! =) Wishing you love and happiness!

  30. A question: I am a graduate student presently working on a Master Thesis. If possible, and I have taken this course,could you please delineate a prospectus for an anticipated essay? Thank you and your webpage is helpful.

  31. I’ve been using these guidelines for writing an abstract for a while now (and, for one, got into a PhD student conference as a BA student because of it!), and I just wanted to comment to tell you how useful they’ve been for me. I’m a BA student working on my thesis and I was just told to “write a summary” of my thesis. My peers freaked out because they did not know what this ‘summary’ meant, and if it was an abstract, and if so, how to write an abstract, so I sent them the link of this post. I have no doubt they will write great, clear, and concise abstracts. So thank you for not just helping the PhD students, Assistant Professors and Professors out there, but also the BA students who feel a bit more academically legit because of your help!

  32. This is the most helpful and clear cut instructions on writing abstracts that I have found so far. Thank you Prof Karen. I’m about to write an abstract for a conference, and using your great tips, I hope that my abstract will be accepted. Thank you again !

  33. Hello – I echo many others in saying thank you for breaking this down into small bites to digest.

    One question – is 1st person acceptable? I had gotten feedback from a PhD candidate in another field than mine that abstracts are usually in the 3rd person.


    • this is very much a field-specific standard. In anthro, first person is fine. In more quant. fields, it may not be. You have to check with a trusted senior advisor (not another grad student!)

  34. First, thanks for such great advice. I actually have a question about submitting these. Almost all CFPs ask for emailed responses; what should we include in the bodies of our emails? Should we treat them like cover letters or just get to the point?

  35. Dear Prof
    Thank you for your guide on writing abstract for conference etc.
    I am currently preparing paper conference. My question is can I use research proposal for conference paper?
    Thank you

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  40. Thankyou for this. It has made things much clearer. However, I am 30 words over. Can you suggest where I could trim? I have a research proposal:

    The question of exercise and working memory has been widely debated in psychology, with scholars such as Berchtold, Catello, Colman, (2010) arguing the benefits and Nouchi and Kawashima, (2014) finding discrepancies in the effect of intervention programmes. Although there have been some studies regarding exercise and working memory it has been evaluated on younger cohorts, as, previously, people did not live as long as they do today. Therefore, their perspectives have not adequately addressed healthy cohorts of women over 65 years, who are the predominant group affected by short term memory loss. This paper addresses the issue of exercise with special attention to working memory. Specifically, in this project, we will be looking at aerobic exercise and cognitive exercises in order to show the effect on working memory and will discuss the implications. It is predicted that both physical and cognitive training will be beneficial to strengthening working memory. In conclusion, this study examines the effects of exercise to enhance the quality of life and reduce costs to society. Our framework suggests a number of avenues for preventative programmes for the future.


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  44. Thanks, Professor, for the very helpful template. I have another concern: Do I have to provide the reference list for a 300-word proposal?
    Thank you!

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  46. After reviewing yours and other materials from other sites, I came to this conclusion that, the process of writing a paper and its abstract should be as follows:
    Step 1 – write a simple abstract to get the paper started.
    Step 2 – write the paper in its entirety.
    Step 3 – Summarize the paper using the 6 sentences guideline.
    Step 4 – Update the abstract based on your work from step 3.

    So what I am suggesting is not to spend too much time on the abstract before the paper is written. Then wait until the very end to come up with the final abstract for the paper.

    • This is not wrong, but it’s also not right, in the sense that in many fields the abstract you write ahead of time is THE abstract that is listed in the program, etc. There is no other place or time for a later abstract to be shared or published. So although one can definitely write a far better abstract after the paper is written, unfortunately all the stakes attach to the one you write BEFORE it!

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  48. I would like to thank you a dozen, maybe two dozen, no three dozen, etc. times. I hope you get the idea. I have used your points in writing abstracts over the past number of years a lot and I wanted you to know that I am batting 1000 when I use your technique. I just used your techniques for a seminar last nite. I awoke this morning with an acceptance to present at that seminar. So thank you very much for your blog. Keep up the good work.

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  54. These guidelines are extremely helpful. Another useful set of guidelines for humanists is found in Belcher’s “Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks.” Belcher suggests that humanities abstracts tend to include all of the following information:

    “context—that is, information on the historical period, the geographic region, the social conditions surrounding the human creations being investigated
    “subject—the literary or artistic works being discussed, their creators and dates
    claim for significance—announcement about the uniqueness of the period or your approach to it
    “theoretical framework—often more suggested than stated, the theory you are using to discuss the subject, such as feminist or psychoanalytic approaches
    argument—what your analysis of the subject revealed about the subject, current approaches to the subject, or society
    “proofs—your evidence for your argument about the subject, or the elements of the subject that you analyze (textual passages) (p. 57)”

    I’ve found these guidelines to be very helpful: they are not appropriate for all fields, but they are very useful in literature disciplines

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  56. This is a very helpful post. I deeply appreciate your effort. I am Ghanaian researcher and I find this post worthy of sharing.

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  59. Thank you professor for the very clear and helpful information provided.
    I am a Solomon Islander and found the information very worthy.

    Thank you again

  60. Just a quick THANK YOU for writing this! I discovered it three years ago and I have literally had every abstract I have submitted since accepted in a variety of different conferences (15/15). Several of these include chairing conference sessions and this advice has changed the way I read (and accept) abstracts for these sessions. It has helped me achieve Full Professor at my mid-sized teaching-centered institution and I share this information with all of my younger tenure-track colleagues. Thank you again!

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  62. As in independent scholar who finished her MA in 2006, this has been very helpful as I get back into the game of conference presentations. Thank you so much for writing this clear, concise article!

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