A little while ago a postgrad student on Twitter asked for some advice about writing abstracts for conferences, so I thought it would be worth canvassing opinion and writing up a short post on my blog. Thanks to all who replied to my tweet and to those who sent me links to their own blogposts on the same topic (links below). This is a topic that I’m particularly interested in at the moment, having just had to decide between many fantastic abstracts for the conference that I’m running Margery Kempe in April this year and having also being involved in choosing the papers for the Architectural Representations conference in 2017. The advice below represents my other thoughts and that of the twitter hive mind, but do leave comments or tweet me if you have other ideas!
Firstly, other great blogs on this topic.
Catherine Baker’s post: A five part plan for pitching your research at almost anything. This post is especially useful because it gives an outline for the structure of an abstract.
Melissa Ridley Elmes’ post: Writing an abstract for a conference paper. Really useful advice on the abstract and the accompanying materials that you might be asked for (bio, CV) and Melissa also includes a final version of an abstract plus draft versions for comparison.
Liz Gloyn’s post: How to write a conference abstract. Very helpful, especially on responding to the CFP.
And finally Dimitra Fimi has a great post on tackling your first academic conference paper once you’ve been accepted! This is very useful reading if you haven’t given a paper before so that you can plan ahead and think about the process of writing the paper.
[Do let me know if you know of other useful posts that I can link!]
A digression on time:
When I’m thinking about putting in an abstract for a conference, I always think about the time involved. I tend to find that going to a conference is a month’s work for me. It usually takes me a working week to come up with an abstract– to look at the primary material and have the initial idea, to do the necessary secondary reading, to write and revise the abstract. Then when it comes to writing the paper, which is usually quite a while after the abstract has been accepted, I usually need to plan for around two weeks work. A week to do the research (and remind myself of the topic) and a week to write the paper (a twenty minute paper which, for me, is around 8-9 sides of double typed A4, perhaps around 2,800-3,000 words). And then the conference itself is usually a week of time or slightly more, depending on the location of the conference. (The time of the actual conference itself, travelling, preparing to travel and getting over it!). Obviously this is my own time frame and I’m sure some people work much more quickly than me and some take more time, and I have definitely had conferences where the paper has come together more quickly! This is especially the case if I am presenting on research that I have already done. If I’m doing something new from scratch, it can definitely take longer! But whenever I’m tempted to put in for a conference, I tend to think about whether I have a ‘month’ of time to dedicate to it. (And this isn’t necessarily time that I am entirely dedicating to it of course- I have a busy teaching schedule and other commitments, but it helps me to visualise/imagine what I’m potentially signing up for!)
So here’s my best advice for writing conference abstracts, and as I say above, this is partly related to having read many such abstracts recently!
Advice for writing abstracts
Titles: snappy and interesting! I do love an intriguing title and often the ‘quote from the text : explanation’ format is popular in literature conference papers. But do make sure that the title really does explain what the paper is going to be about! More recently I’ve tended to find that I choose more explicitly descriptive titles. I want the organisers to know exactly what I’m discussing and how it relates to the theme of the conference. And it’s always helpful for delegates (especially when there are parallel sessions) to know what they’re getting!
My recent titles have included (and the full abstracts are below):
For the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in 2017, the focus of which was space and place: ‘”Thu hast many awngelys about the, to kepyn the bothe day and nygth”: Margery Kempe’s Body as Sacred Space.’
For the Coarseness of the Brontes conference: ‘Coarseness, Identity, and Understanding in Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte.‘
For After Chichele: Intellectual and Cultural Dynamics of the English Church, 1443-1517: ‘”What the church betokeneth”: Architectural Allegory in the Fifteenth-Century.’
I tend to like to use one of the keywords from the conference CFP in the title, to signal that my paper is ‘on topic’
Be clear about how your paper will speak to the conference theme: this is so important! Sometimes there are conferences that we want to go to and we have to sort of twist or shape our research to fit. And sometimes that works well! But you want the organisers to see that you have really thought about how your expertise and ideas will contribute to the overall theme of their conference. They have chosen this theme for a reason and the coherence of the programme is an important factor in choosing which papers to accept. More often than not I tend to come up with something ‘new’ for a conference, and for my career stage, it is nice to be challenged and to think about striking out into new areas or to seize the opportunity to work on a text that has always been on my ‘to do’ list. As a graduate student though, I often wanted to present research that I had already been developing, so postgraduate conferences or conferences on my specific research area tended to be the best for showcasing my graduate research.
I should also note here that if you are rejected from a conference, that doesn’t automatically mean that your paper wasn’t good enough! We had a huge number of submissions for the Margery Kempe conference but we had to think about our theme (twenty-first century approaches) and we had to think about the shape of the conference as a whole when we were choosing which papers to accept and how the panels might look. There were so many amazing papers to choose from but we couldn’t accept everyone so we had to think about what we wanted to achieve in the conference as a whole.
It can be very difficult to be accepted onto a big conference, especially when there are pre-arranged panels to which you submit your abstract. This happened to me when I first applied to go to the New Chaucer Society congress in 2014. The session I applied for had three slots and there were thirty submissions! It’s not surprising I wasn’t accepted! When I saw the final programme though, I noted that the abstracts that were accepted had a very clearly stated argument and I don’t think that my idea was very well worked out when I submitted it.
As well as sticking to the theme and making sure that your paper is relevant, a conference abstract should be specific, precise, and have an argument. And this is why I tend to need a week or two weeks to work on an abstract. If you just outline the general topic or area then the organisers have no idea what you are arguing and what the paper will really contain. If they can see a precise argument and the evidence that you will discuss, this makes it much easier to judge whether the paper will be relevant to the theme of the conference. This also makes it easier for you in the long run! Especially when you come back to write the paper after a few months have probably passed! The clearer you can be about the precise argument and content when you submit the abstract, the easier it will be to write the paper later.
I would recommend being specific about the content, approach, and relationship to the critical field too. As a literary scholar, I identify the text and, more importantly, which specific moments in the text that I am going to discuss. In a 20 minute conference paper, I tend to find that you can only really discuss three examples in detail, so I like to think in these terms which I’m planning. In fact, in recent papers on Margery Kempe, I have tended to have one episode in the Book which I then discuss in great detail (close reading, historical context, art/visual culture background etc). Less is more when you have 20 minutes so don’t try to propose too much! I overestimated what I could achieve in my paper for the After Chichele conference (the abstract is below, I proposed talking about three texts, in the end I only did two so I was definitely over ambitious in that case!).
It’s important to identify the approach to the material- in my case that it usually the key critical theorists that I will use and how/why- and then I think it’s important to show where your work fits into the current critical field. I will usually reference a couple of scholars or critical articles that my paper will build on or challenge. This is another reason that you should do your research when you are writing an abstract. It can be frustrating to read an abstract that seems to have been written in a vacuum, when you know that there are a number of key critics who have written on this precise area! How will this paper propose something new if there’s no recognition of current research?
Referencing the critical field also means that you can then state why and how your approach is new. What will your paper add to current discussion? What have you noticed that no one else has picked up?
Stick to the word count: if they ask for 300 words, don’t write 500 words! This sounds obvious but not everyone does this in my experience.
Get a friend to read your abstract: not just for proof reading but to see if they can see what you’re getting at! The conference organisers, especially for wide-ranging conferences, may not be an expert in precisely your area of expertise so it needs to be clear and accessible. It can be especially useful to get a friend to read your abstract and compare it to the CFP to see if they think it sounds relevant. It might sound perfect in your head but to an outside it might not be clear precisely how the paper is ‘on theme’!
If they ask for a brief bio, be brief! My current bio is: ‘Dr Laura Varnam is the lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. Her monograph, The Church as Sacred Space in Middle English Literature and Culture, is published by Manchester University Press in 2018′. Before the book was published, I would say something like, ‘she is currently preparing a book entitled…’ or ‘her current research focuses on xyz’. Or for graduate students, ‘her PhD project focuses on…’ or ‘her MA thesis will examine…’
Do check out the links at the top of my post for further great advice and please do tweet me (@lauravarnam) or leave a comment below if you have other thoughts on this topic.
Below are some example abstracts that I had accepted for conferences in 2017. They are a range of lengths and are for a range of different conferences. (And they are not necessarily perfect!)
Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2017 (theme: space and place)
‘Thu hast many awngelys abowte the, to kepyn the bothe day and nygth’: Margery Kempe’s Body as Sacred Space
Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford
This paper will examine the representation of angels in The Book of Margery Kempe and will argue that their presence as guardians around Margery constructs her body as a sacred space with the capacity to heal. Two episodes in The Book establish Margery’s relationship with angels: firstly, when she sees ‘many white thyngys flying al abowte hir on every side, as thykke in maner as motys in the sunne’ and God tells her that they are angels (ch.35); and secondly, when the madwoman sees ‘many fayr awngelys’ surrounding Margery and is healed by her presence (ch.75). Drawing on Gail Ashton’s argument that angels both ‘highlight and elide sexual difference’ at the site of the body, I will explore the gendering of Margery’s body and consequences of the body-as-sacred-space for official church space.
Angels were ubiquitous in the visual culture of medieval Norfolk churches, from angel roofs to stained glass windows, and their presence was crucial for the conception of the church as sacred space. Angels played an important role in the representation of sacred bodies, from protecting the chastity of St Cecilia in Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale to accompanying the Virgin to heaven at the Assumption. In the context of vernacular representations of angels and theological arguments about their gender, corporeality, and relationship to place, I will show how the presence of angels consecrates the body of Margery Kempe as a mobile sacred space with the ability to perform miracles in marginal locations.
The madwoman in Margery’s Book is banished to a marginal space on the edge of the town but as a result of Margery’s angelic intervention, she recovers her sanity and is reintegrated into official church space by undergoing the ‘churching’ ceremony. I will conclude by showing how Margery’s body establishes both a connection and an opposition between the madwoman’s chamber (as a healing space) and the church (as a space of gendered reintegration).
 Gail Ashton, ‘Bridging the Difference: Reconceptualising the Angel in Medieval Hagiography’, Literature and Theology, 16.3 (2002), 235-47.
After Chichele: Intellectual and Cultural Dynamics of the English Church 1443-1517
What the Church Betokeneth: Architectural Allegory in the Fifteenth Century
Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford
This paper will examine the renewed relevance of architectural allegory as a tool of pastoral education and community-building in the fifteenth century. It will focus on the Middle English adaptations of two major traditions of architectural allegory: Robert Grosseteste’s Templum Dei, in which the body of the believer is the temple of God, and William of Durandus’s Rationale divinorum officiorum, in which the church is built out of the living stones of the congregation. The critique of the material church by the Lollards, represented in its most extended form by The Lanterne of Liȝt, cast a long shadow over the fifteenth century but it was challenged by the enthusiastic and dynamic programmes of church restoration, decoration, and transformation that lead to the period being characterised as the great age of church-building. This reinvigoration of the material church and its ornaments was supported and paralleled by archbishop Chichele’s emphasis on public worship and communal devotion, for example in his promotion of national saints and elaboration of the liturgy. The three Middle English texts that I will discuss emerge from this context. The first, the Templum Domini, is found in British Library MS Additional 32578 (dating from 1405) and is a Middle English adaptation of the first six chapters of Grosseteste’s pastoral handbook. The poem is relevant to ‘crystyn peple alle’ but it is especially addressed to priests who must prepare themselves as temples for receiving Christ, which is particularly resonant given Lollard critiques of the priesthood. The second text, known as What the Church Betokeneth, is found in British Library MS Additional 35298 (late fifteenth-century), alongside the saints’ lives of the Gilte Legende, including Erkenwald, Edward the Confessor, and Winifred, which is perhaps suggestive of the legacy of Chichele’s national agenda for the church. What the Church Betokeneth is a prose adaptation of passages from Durandus and, as I have argued elsewhere, the text subtly translates the gothic architecture of the Latin original to the English parish church. The text also includes an interpretation of liturgical rituals, the material objects of the church, and a delineation of basic pastoral material such as the Ten Commandments and the articles of the faith. The text builds the ideal community into the architecture of the church, from the poor represented by the pavement to the preachers represented by the roof, and furnishes the building with all the pastoral and liturgical teaching necessary for its successful operation. The final text that I will discuss was edited as the Magnificencia Ecclesie by Henry Noble MacCracken in 1909. It derives from Trinity College, Cambridge MS R 3. 21 (1471-83), a religious miscellany owned by the London merchant Roger Thorney. Also drawing on Durandus, the poem employs the allegorical interpretation of church architecture in order to teach the reader why they too should honour and magnify the church. I will argue that all three texts aim to reinforce the importance of the church, as a building and a community, in fifteenth-century devotional life.
[c500 words. NB when I gave the paper, I only discussed two of the texts- What the Church Betokenethand the Magnificencia Ecclesie– doing the other tradition in the Templum Domini was way too much for twenty mins!]
The Coarseness of the Brontes: A Reappraisal
Coarseness, Identity, and Understanding in Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë
Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford
In Daphne du Maurier’s 1960 biography of Branwell, she argued that his unhappiness was caused by ‘his inability to distinguish truth from fiction, reality from fantasy’ and that he ‘failed in life because it differed from his own “infernal world”’. In this paper I will show how du Maurier’s biography presents a shifting view of ‘coarseness’ as a mode of behaviour and a creative force that both attracts and repels Branwell, and indeed du Maurier herself as biographer. In a review of the biography in the Times Literary Supplement, du Maurier’s attitude to Branwell was described as ‘merciless- but warmly merciless, for she seeks to understand him’ and I argue that this understanding proceeds from du Maurier’s attempt to psychologise Branwell’s coarseness and determine its role in his infernal world.
As a child, du Maurier portrays Branwell’s coarseness as an assertion of masculinity and confidence, when he stands in the kitchen at bath time, ‘glorying in nudity’ and recognising the physical difference between himself and his sisters. Once deep into the ‘infernal world’ of Angria and Gondal, du Maurier presents Branwell and Emily colluding in an imaginative coarseness that has its roots in the Haworth landscape; striding over the moors, they ‘vie with one another as to who could produce the more fearful fantasy, the more desperate character’. This competitive, imaginative coarseness is initially presented as an attempt to assert independence from Charlotte, the sister with whom he created Angria and who was far more successful in freeing herself from the dangers of the ‘infernal world’ than her brother. In one episode, du Maurier presents Branwell attempting to introduce coarse characters unknown to his sister into the Angrian world but the results are unsuccessful; Branwell’s fiction betrays a ‘childlike innocence’ that is ‘untouched’ by the ‘coarse humour of moorland acquaintances’ and results in a literary naivety. Coarseness here represents a reality of experience that is tantalisingly out of reach to the poor, closeted Branwell; in literary terms, it is to be desired.
But when Branwell falls in with the Luddenden Foot bargees, he becomes fascinated with these ‘rowdy, rough, coarse men’: their way of life represents freedom and independence. The parson’s son from Haworth could ‘feel anonymous and secure’ and, moreover, deliberately rebel against the intellectuals of the Royal Academy by going to ‘the opposite extreme’. Here du Maurier presents Branwell as recognising the performative power of coarseness as a mode of self-fashioning. This recurs at the end of the biography when du Maurier describes Branwell’s isolation from his sisters, ‘thrust out, abandoned’ as a castaway. Coarse behaviour is no longer a refuge but a weapon, both to regain their affections and to take his vengeance for excluding him: ‘if they withdrew their love from him, he must behave violently to win attention… if a peaceful household would not include him, then there should be no peace.’ Du Maurier’s representation of Branwell’s coarseness is not intended to condemn his dissolute behaviour but to understand how the clever, excitable red-haired boy, master of Sneaky the wooden soldier, had come to be devoured by an infernal world of his own making.
 Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (Gollancz, 1960; reprinted Penguin 1972).
 The Times Literary Supplement, November 18th 1960.
 Infernal World, chapter 2.
 Infernal World, chapter 5.
 Infernal World, chapter 7.
 Infernal World, chapter 8.
 Infernal World, chapter 16.