How to Write an Academic Conference Paper

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Writing an academic conference paper can be daunting, especially if you are a relatively new scholar, graduate student, or even an undergraduate.

Submitting an Abstract

  • Look for calls-for-papers (CFPs) long in advance. Abstract submissions are often due a year before the conference.

  • Submit ideas to many different conferences. Do not submit the same abstract to more than one conference, but submitting different versions of an article to separate conferences is common. Do not try only for the most prestigious gatherings, especially if you are just starting out. Regional conferences offer a great way for up and coming scholars to enhance their CVs.

  • Keep your abstract short. Make your claims, but do not try to fully develop an argument. That is for the paper. Be sure to note what about your project is innovative rather than just explaining your topic.

  • Submit your abstracts early. Since most people wait until the deadline (or even after) to submit paper ideas, you have a better chance if you can show you plan ahead.

Writing the Paper

  • Keep it short and clear. People are more impressed with an elegant but simple statement of a complex idea than of a long, tedious exercise in erudition.

  • Keep footnotes and endnotes even if you will not present them during the talk. If you are lucky, a conference paper can become an article submission, and you do not want to have to redo research.

  • Make and explain your claims, but keep the details of the argument to a minimum. Conferences are a place to share and get feedback on ideas, not (usually) to debate minutiae. You can always add more detail in the question-and-answer period, but overloading your paper with quotations, data, or statistics will lose your audience.

  • Use handouts. Handouts are not only good for helping people through your argument, but they also leave something tangible for other scholars to remember you by.

  • Practice. Even if your discipline's conferences usually involve simply reading a paper out loud, knowing how to express yourself orally can significantly improve how your work is received.

Tips & Warnings

  • See if you recognize anyone in the audience before speaking. This is particularly useful during the question-and-answer period when you may have to field questions from experts in your field, even those you cite in your presentation.
  • Use the paper as a chance to network. Even a piece of work in its early stages can be an opportunity to ask established scholars for advice.
  • Avoid excusing partial or unfinished work because it is part of a longer article project. Your audience will see through this and, even if it is true, will wonder why you did not prepare a more polished presentation.

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