Writing as a Game

When I talk to workshop participants about writing a conference abstract, a few of them usually get confused. They ask, how they could possibly write an abstract about research they haven’t yet done. The conference might not take place for another year, but the abstract is due next month. How can you write about your research, if you don’t yet know the results that you will want to present at the conference?

You have to play the game everyone else is playing. In order to be accepted by the conference committee, you have to write the abstract “as if” you’ve already finished the research. This is called a promissory abstract (Swales/Feak, Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts, 2009, p. 55). The abstract should not, however, disclose that you haven’t yet done the research or that you don’t yet know the results of the analysis at the time of writing. Instead, you should present your research as confidently and authoritatively as possible. That’s what the committee wants to read (aside from innovative, current and focused research). They don’t want to read that you might find this or that or what you don’t yet know but certainly will, after spending a year doing the research that is not yet properly funded… No, if you want to participate in the conference with your own paper, you need to convince them with a strong abstract. It doesn’t matter whether you finally present exactly what you had promised. At every conference I visited, some participants changed their paper titles or even the entire content. Of course, you shouldn’t boast or lie in the abstract, knowing that you won’t be able to deliver. Don’t promise a revolution, in case you simply add a small piece to the puzzle everyone else is working on in your research community. But be self-confident and show in your abstract what you’re able to contribute. The abstract should “sell” your paper to the conference committee.

If you play the game, you do as everyone else does. Do it professionally and seriously. Nobody will notice, because they play it too.

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