How to write a 300-word conference presentation abstract
Updated: Nov 8
I recently participated in a workshop for graduate students preparing abstract proposals for
the 2024 ICJLE (International Conference on Japanese Language Education) conference. During the workshop, I shared some tips that I use when I write abstracts, so I thought it might be helpful to post them here. Note that I’m assuming you have already settled on the topic and the project is underway. If that’s not the case… well, that’s a topic for another blog.
Don’t start by planning to write 300 words. Your goal should not be “write 300 words.” If it is, and you stop at 300 words, or hastily wrap up when you get to that length, you may stop before you’ve included all the necessary elements. Or worse, you may stop writing before you’ve articulated your presentation’s conclusions or contributions.
Although it’s common to think about writing in terms of length, it’s important to ensure that you write through all your key ideas. Have you ever heard the expression “writing is thinking”? This is the idea that writing is not figuring out everything we’re going to say in our heads, and then writing down a bunch of fully formed thoughts. Instead, it is in the act of writing that we figure out what it is we want to say. As Steven Mintz observed, “writing is not simply a matter of expressing pre-existing thoughts clearly. It’s the process through which ideas are produced and refined.”
In drafting your abstract, use the act of writing to articulate and refine your ideas. Write an outline. A good place to start is with a basic outline, which might include: introduction and background, description of the study, preliminary findings, conclusion, and contributions. Now, instead of writing 300 words, your goal becomes writing a few sentences or a short paragraph for each section in the outline.
If you find that you can’t write at least a sentence or two for each section, that means you still have some work to do before you’ll be ready to write the abstract. Maybe you need to do a little more work on previous research literature before you can write the background or contributions. Or perhaps you need to revisit your analysis before you can articulate the preliminary findings. Writing through the outline will help you find these missing pieces.
After you finish writing through each section of the outline, you will have a rough draft of your abstract. Maybe it’s 400 words, or maybe closer to 500 words, that’s ok. This step will help you complete the crucial task of articulating your ideas.
Revisit the evaluation criteria. Before you start editing, take some time to think about how your abstract will be evaluated. Return to the Call for Proposals and see if the evaluation criteria are specified. If so, evaluate your abstract based on that. Read as if you were a reviewer and see how well your draft aligns with the criteria. If the criteria are not listed in the CfP, re-read the conference description, and use this information to review your draft description. It’s safe to assume that abstracts will be evaluated based on how clearly they explain the topic, background, study details (data, methodology), conclusions or findings, and contributions. If this list looks a lot like the outline you wrote in the step above, you’re doing it right!
As you read your draft, ask yourself which sections are unclear, for example, from the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the same research articles you’ve read. Maybe you need to add some definitional information, or there are details missing from the description of your study. As you read, ask yourself “so what? Why does this matter?” If the answer isn’t clear from the information you’ve provided, you need to address that. As you go through this process, you may find you’re adding more to address these missing pieces. Again, that’s ok. Right now, you want to make sure your abstract has all the details it needs to have.
Edit and Cut. Now it’s time to start looking at that word count! If you have 400 words or less, careful editing should easily get you down closer to 300. But if you have 500 words or more, you are going to need to remove entire sentences or whole sections. First, look for redundancy. You may be surprised to find that you’re saying the same thing twice in two different sections – for example, in the introduction and the conclusion. In a 150-page book, repeating something from the introduction when you write the conclusion is ok, since the reader may have forgotten some early details by the time they get to the end. But such repetition isn’t necessary in a 300-word abstract. So identify spots where you are repeating yourself, and start your cutting there.
Next, look for details that aren’t needed for the abstract, and keep only those that are necessary to help the reader understand your project and where it fits in your field. For example, do you have a lot of information in the background section? A lot of literature review details and multiple citations? That’s a good place to start cutting or collapsing. Do you have more details about the study than are needed in an abstract? Cut that, too.
Another detail to pay attention to at this stage is the structure and order in which you introduce ideas. Experiment with moving sentences around to see if there’s a more effective way to present your topic. Check to see if something you have in the conclusion section might actually work better in the introduction section.
While you’re doing all this cutting, be sure to keep earlier drafts and save any of the language you’re cutting. You may find it useful later, for your presentation or an article write-up.
At this point, if you’re still struggling to get the word count down, move on to the next step!
Put it aside before editing again. This step is essential, so be sure to give yourself enough time before the submission deadline. Put your abstract aside and work on something else. You can work on the project or the presentation, but don’t work on the abstract. Come back to it, in a few days or, ideally, in a week. After some time away, return to your abstract and re-read it with fresh eyes. Focus on clarity, structure, and coherence. If it was still too long when you set it aside, this break should help you spot more places to cut.
Polish and submit. At this point, you should have a more refined and concise presentation of your ideas than when you started. If you have time to get feedback from a friend or mentor, great! But if not, the steps I’ve outlined here will have helped you come up with a solid abstract that demonstrates to the reader what your project is and how it will contribute to the conference.
Now submit your abstract and get started on prepping the actual presentation!