The University 811: Lessons in Abstract

Continuing the blog series on university tips that I started here, today we’re going to talk about writing abstract. I’ve said it before (here, here, and here), and I’ll say it again, first and foremost for any piece of writing you need to identify your objectives and your audience(s). This is especially important for abstract-writing. In most cases, your objective will be “I want to have my piece of research accepted.” Regardless of what the objective of your research is, the purpose of the abstract is the sales pitch for that research. Since that objective, acceptance, hinges on external factors, your audience, you can see why it’s absolutely imperative to consider your audience.

If you’re writing a conference abstract, then your audience will be first reviewed and approved by conference organisers or a reviewing committee. Have the CFP (call for papers) at hand when you write your abstract. Does the CFP posed any questions they hope to answer? Are there any specific areas or themes that the CFP particularly highlights? Are there any keywords that leap out at you? What is the subject of the theme of the conference itself? What is the background of the people hosting the conference? Who are the keynotes and what are their contributions to the field? You’re not setting out to answer these questions in your abstract, but you should hold them in your mind as you write. You want to frame your abstract so that it’s an obvious fit for the conference. The worst conference abstracts I’ve seen (and I’ve organised 10 conferences so far) are ones which do not match the theme or purpose of the conference. You want your abstract to tell the organisers that you have something meaningful to add to the discussions that they’ve created a space for.

The second audience to consider for a conference abstract are the attendees of the conference. Once your abstract is accepted by the conference committee, it will likely be published in the conference programme itself (either printed or online). Often, there may be several panels occurring at the same time and attendees will have to choose between two or more panels to decide which one to attend. So you want to write your abstract in a way that is appealing to conference delegates with the aim of getting them to come see your presentation. Again, consider the audience’s background and the conference theme. This assessment will allow you to moderate the tone and jargon in your abstract. For instance, I recently presented a paper at a postcolonial conference. As I work on fantasy fiction, I needed to present my abstract in a way that in understandable and approachable to literature scholars who may be unfamiliar with fantasy criticism, or with the fantasy genre itself. If I were to write the abstract for a fantasy conference, then I would need to frame the research in a different way, perhaps highlighting postcolonial elements that a group of fantasy scholars may be unfamiliar with. If I were to write an abstract for a postcolonial fantasy conference, then, again, I’d need to re-frame the abstract accordingly. In each case, your abstract situates your work in relation to the field, but identifying the field itself depends largely on the theme of the conference. While in all three examples, I’m pitching an abstract to literature scholars, there are subsections within this field that I need to consider, categories within the field which are distinct from each other. If you’re writing an abstract to accompany an article submission, then the same ideas apply. i.e. What is the theme and aims of the journal? Who is the audience? How does your work fit within this field?

The difference between conference and article abstracts (IMHO) is tone and tense. Conference papers usually present a small portion of your research. In most cases, this research is in some stage of development, i.e. you may be nearly done or just starting, but generally you have acquired some data and are presenting your initial findings and analysis. Occasionally, you may present at a conference after the research is done and you’re nearly ready to publish (or have published). In this case, the conference paper operates as a summary of your findings and conclusions, inviting the audience to read the full published text. Alternatively, you may be presenting at a conference before the research has even begun; in this case, you would be outlining your plans and methodologies and what you hope to accomplish. All of these scenarios are perfectly acceptable if you treat conferences as a way to test your ideas and get informal feedback from your peers no matter what stage of research your at. (Even if you’re done, you may want to consider directions for your next project, or how to expand the work further.) Thus, your tone and tense-choices may differ depending on the stage. If you’re at an earlier stage, you will likely use more conditional language, stating what you hope to accomplish or plan to do. But your abstract should still be written in a way that makes it apparent that you have considered a rough outline for your conference paper. The second worse conference abstracts I’ve seen are vague ones that summarizes the topic or discusses the importance of it, but tells me nothing about the presenter’s argument and/or methodology. (Check out my blog on the ‘so what’ factor, to tackle that issue further.) In many of these cases, (especially in the humanities) these abstracts are written before the presenter has put any major thought into what they hope to accomplish. Now, while it is entirely possible to write your conference paper on the train ride to the conference, if you’re submitting your abstract to a competitive programme, you may want to avoid statements in your abstract that makes it apparent that you haven’t done any of the work yet.

In contrast, article abstracts are written for research that is ready to be published. Like conference papers, it may only be a small portion of your larger project, but that piece is ready to be publicly disseminated. So your abstract must clearly outline your arguments, your methodologies, and the steps you’ve taken to reach your conclusions. Ideally (and this is only my opinion as journal editor; other editors may prefer other approaches), I prefer abstracts that read as a mini-outline of the project, operating almost as a set of guideposts to your reader. Putting myself in the position of reader, when I’m researching a topic I appreciate abstracts that tell me exactly what the article will do as it helps me decide if the work is applicable to my own research or not. Reading a vague abstract – or one overly complicated with complex language and technical jargon – makes me unwilling to do the work of procuring a copy of the text and reading it.

There’s another type of abstract that doesn’t get talked about often when discussing abstracts, the proposal abstract for grant applications. As there are a number of varying grant types and funding bodies, it’s difficult to summarise audience expectations here. But, in most cases, treat your audience as an educated general audience – i.e they may not have much experience with your particular field, but they will be highly educated, so either avoid using any jargon or concepts that are specific to your field or explain them if you have the space to do so. The key thing to keep in mind for grant applications is that you’re asking someone outside of your field to invest a lot of money into you and your project. So, while above I advise that you don’t dedicate too much time explaining the importance of the project, here you need to make sure that you have one or two sentences which clearly and strongly states your case. The difference in approaches, again, is due to your audience. In conference or article abstracts, you’re pitching your abstract to a scholar related to your field (in my case, another literature scholar); they’ll likely understand the importance of you work within that field. But with grant applications, it’s entirely possible that the review committee may have no experience in your field at all. For instance, while my own funding application focuses on literature, my readers and reviewers may have experiences in a completely different area of the humanities (sociology, history, etc). While these types of abstracts are generally shorter than conference or article-abstracts, you want to use your abstract as a pitch that invites your reader to continue reading the rest of your proposal.

Whether you’re writing an abstract for a conference, an article, or a funding proposal, in all of these cases, the abstract is the ‘first impression’ that you’re presenting to other scholars; so make it a good one. And good luck!

Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).