Abstracts: art or science?

With calls for abstracts currently open for the 9th BEAR Postgraduate Researcher Conference and the Research Poster Conference 2019, now seems like a good time for a post on writing good abstracts.

Research Poster Conference 2018

One way to think about conference abstracts is that they are a sales pitch for your presentation/poster.  You are trying to sell your presentation first of all to the conference organisers, and then if accepted, to the conference attendees who will be using the abstracts to decide which presentations to attend and which posters to seek out.  As such, a conference abstract may be quite different to a journal abstract, as the latter is more of a straight summary of the content of the journal article.

A good abstract has:

  • A title that will catch the attention of the attendees of the conference.
  • A clear explanation of why the presentation will be interesting to this audience.
  • An obvious link to the theme(s) of the conference.
  • Clear and engaging writing, without too many technical terms or references.

Every call for abstracts requires you to write a unique abstract for submission.  It is extremely unlikely that both the research you wish to present and the conference audience will be identical for two different conferences, so you will need to consider these afresh each time.  Make sure you leave yourself enough time before the deadline to get this right.

Don’t forget that the conference organisers will be delighted if you fail to follow their instructions on format, template, word count, biography etc.  You will save them the trouble of reading and assessing your abstract, and they’ll be able to throw it straight in the reject pile.  Don’t give them that excuse.

There’s a little bit of an art to writing a good abstract for research you are still carrying out.  You may need to be a little vague about the results if you haven’t got them yet!  This is fairly common, and the best thing to do is to have a look at previous (successful) abstracts to see how others have achieved this.  And of course, ask for advice from your supervisor or others in your discipline.

One of the most useful things you can do to develop your understanding of good conference abstracts is to be a member of a conference organising committee.  This will give you the opportunity to assess abstracts submitted and you will soon find out what impresses (or not!).  For more on abstracts and conferences in general, see Making the most of conferences (workshop and online course).

What tips have you found helpful when preparing a conference abstract?  If you’ve been on a conference organising committee, what have you seen that made the submitted abstracts particularly good or bad?

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Helen Kara

Writing and research

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