Painless Publication: How to Write a Conference Abstract

Posted by Chris S on Jun 27, 2018 3:15:00 AM

Our previous blog post, “Painless Publication: How to Write a Journal Abstract,” walked you through the steps in writing the abstract for a journal article. Now we turn our focus to writing abstracts for conference proceedings. Although there are some similarities between these two types of abstracts, there are also some distinct considerations and approaches for conference abstracts.

Granger Danger edit

The Purpose of a Conference Abstract

As with journal articles, the abstract for a conference should be a stand-alone summary of the full information you want to present at the conference. Your audience, however, is two-fold for a conference. First, your abstract will be used by the conference evaluation team to decide if they will invite you to present at the conference. These abstracts will also help the evaluators determine which should be platform presentations and which should be poster presentations. Secondly, the abstract will appear in the conference proceedings, and the attendees will use your abstract to decide if your presentation is one they want to hear in full.

There are often many concurrent sessions at a conference, and you’ve probably used proceedings to decide which presentations among the many you want to attend. As with journal abstracts, think about what information helps you make such a decision, and keep that in mind as you write your own.

Gathering Preliminary Information

When you have identified your target conference, review the Call for Papers (CFP) carefully for key information you will need to know, such as:

  • Outline or template
  • Formatting requirements
  • Word or character count
  • Supplemental information needed or allowed
  • Due date
  • How to submit your abstract
  • Deciding which session to target

In addition, look up the conference proceedings from previous years and read several abstracts. Note the information or sentences that really grab your attention or demonstrate a high level of applicability for the conference. These are things that likely grabbed the evaluator’s attention and led to the proposal being accepted. You can use these insights to guide your own writing.

Use the word count limit and the presentation time limit, if known, to decide how much of your research can be effectively included in your abstract and presentation. If you must limit your presentation to a subset of your full research, decide what part of your study is most applicable to the conference and focus on that.

Conference abstracts are scientific writing first and foremost, but there is an art to writing them as well. It can take time and experience to learn how to write effective abstracts, so ask some lab-mates or your advisor for feedback, especially if it is your first time presenting at a conference. Advice from mentors and peers can also be helpful when you need to decide how much data to show if being "scooped" is a high concern. Lastly, there is a special art to finding the balance of vague specificity (or is it specific vagueness?) when describing experiments that are in progress at the time of writing.

Layout of the Abstract

Your abstract should address four primary questions:

  1. What is the problem or data gap that your research addresses?
  2. What methods are you using to overcome this problem or fill the data gap?
  3. What data have you generated (or are in the process of generating)?
  4. What findings will you discuss during your presentation?

If your research is still in-progress when you are writing the abstract, rely on your study design and data gathering/evaluation plan to address the last two questions. Also keep in mind that you can include new information and data in your full presentation, so don’t lose too much sleep over this.

Most conference abstracts contain the following information, plus any conference-specific requirements. Note that the number of sentences listed for each item is a general guideline. Use the word count limit for your particular conference to adjust as appropriate.

Introduction (1-2 sentences). After the title, the first sentence of your abstract needs to be the hook that grabs the readers’ attention and gets them to continue reading. Boldly jump right into the deep end of your topic—no need, or room, to gently wade into it! You can use a second sentence, if needed, to touch on recent information on, or interest in, the topic.

Problem (1 sentence). Clearly identify the problem that exists in the topic area. It could be shortcomings in study design, the need for an improved technique, data gaps, and so on. Succinctly state why these shortcomings present a problem for the full understanding of the topic. It may also be appropriate to use the problem statement as the first sentence of the introduction.

Solution (1 sentence). State what is needed to solve the problem.

Your study (1 to 3 sentences). State your hypothesis and provide a brief overview of your study design.

Your argument (1 sentence). State your argument for how your study will help solve the problem.

Conclusion (1 sentence). Wrap it up with a strong concluding sentence about how your study will add to the understanding of the topic and, perhaps, provide insight for future study directions.

Title. After you’ve drafted your abstract, go back over it and highlight the words and phrases you chose to grab your readers’ attention. Use those to develop an efficient title that will also grab their attention. A good title length is 12 words or fewer. Along with the first sentence of the abstract, the title is the first thing that conference attendees will see when they are searching the program (or wandering by your poster), so it's worth spending some time trying a few variations to see what conveys the main scientific point and entices the audience to read the abstract.

Steps for Writing the Abstract

The steps for writing a conference abstract are similar to those for a journal article abstract:

  1. Write the draft, resisting the urge to edit as you write. That will come later!
  2. Step away from the completed draft for a while, then review and revise as needed.
  3. Have a colleague review the revised abstract.
  4. Have a skilled proofreader review the final abstract.

As you write the draft, make each sentence concise, clear, and limited to what the reader needs to know about the content of your presentation. As you review the draft, remove unnecessary information, and correct spelling and grammar mistakes. Also compare the abstract to the conference guidelines to ensure it meets the requirements.

A quick note about submitting your abstract: the earlier the better! Doing so demonstrates your professionalism and enthusiasm for the conference, and helps you avoid the panic that ensues when a server is down or internet access is out on the due date.

Did you like this post? Check out another where we break down the process for Scientific Rebuttals.

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