Writing a Conference Paper Abstract

 Latheirt, 'excessive ale consumption' or 'massive hangover' according to Damian McMannus
written by a monk as an apology for the poor contents of the following manuscript page.
A Guide to Ogam, Maynooth Monographs no. 4 (Maynooth, An Sagart: 1991)
An important reminder for writing your abstract from Saint Gall MS

Codex Sangallensis 904, p. 204.

Writing a Conference Paper Abstract

You are doing a bit of research and you decided to submit your work-in-progress to a conference. Getting your paper onto the programme is your next step, and that starts with writing an abstract that will land it a place. Abstracts are brief snippets of information that introduce, by way of summary, a potential reader to your work. Too often, they become short papers in and of themselves, or they do not provide enough information to draw the continued interest of the reader. Below are a few helpful pointers to aid in writing an abstract that will get your paper to the next step.

Keep It Brief!

The object here is to draw the attention of others to your work, to get them to want to hear your full presentation or to read the full paper. No matter the conference, no matter its size, assume first and foremost that the programme committee is reading hundreds of abstracts. A researcher looking at your work is pouring through dozens of articles and books. Both audiences have limited time and need just enough information to decide whether to continue to look at what you are doing. A 'less is more' approach is a good one to take here.

What To Write

There is really is no single way to write a good abstract, but generally, it should address certain key elements:

  • What is the research question the paper seeks to answer?
  • What do you expect the answer to the question will be (or, if you have already done the research, what is the answer)?

Between these two, these questions tell the reader what the point of your paper will be. To be sure, the exact standards for the question and answer will vary from discipline to discipline. These two elements are the most critical to include and should be in any abstract. Other important questions often included are:

  • How will you (or how did you) do the research? What methodology will you (or did you) employ?
  • How does your paper address gaps in the currently published literature?

How you address these four elements adds up to the most important reason for the abstract: Why is this work important enough to include in the programme? Why is this work important enough that others should take the time to watch your presentation? Why should someone want to read your paper associated with it?

Again, Keep it Brief!

When addressing the elements above, a good rule of thumb is to write no more than three or four sentences on each element. Some conference impose a limit of 500 words or so for the abstract, including any citations listed. (If the paper should be published later, adhere to the publication's style guides). This means that the abstract should not include a detailed literature review; this is something that belongs in a significant section within the prose of the paper itself. If one or two key works influenced your research, it may be well to mention them --in brief-- in the abstract.


When it comes to citations anywhere, the rule all writers and researchers should observe is: 'When in doubt, cite'. That said, if citations are needed in your abstract, they should be kept to a minimum. The conference call for papers may have instructions on whether to include them; if in doubt about whether and how to include them, contact the conference programme committee for guidance. If any citations do appear in the abstract, it is best to use parenthetical notation in-text, followed by the usual full citation after the abstract itself. Again, this is a summary, so full details on all your references will appear throughout the paper through footnotes or a references section at the end.


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