28 Mar Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Abstracts – Some Concrete Suggestions
Abstracts are often afterthought texts: frequently dashed off while one is pressed against the railing of a deadline. Yet they are gateway texts on which much can hinge. Conference doors can swing open or close on the strength of an abstract. A successful response to a call for papers can put a foot in the door of a collective publishing project to which one might not otherwise have access. They are calling cards; first encounters. As such, they are highly personal. And yet they are also highly generic; they are texts about which early career scholars are often given very detailed, prescriptive advice.
Perhaps all this ambivalence about abstracts is related to the multiple senses of the word. An abstract is a text in which one steps back from the particularities of one’s project and writes abridgedly and abstractly. For any scholar, but perhaps especially for scholars who write, as Audre Lorde did, from “a well-stocked arsenal of anger” borne of “oppressions, personal and institutional”, this can be uncomfortable.
Discomfort is often generative, though, so should we cherish these texts more, linger over them a little longer? Thinking that perhaps we should, this post ventures some suggestions for the writing of two genres of abstracts: pitching abstracts and sharing abstracts. Pitching abstracts encompass abstracts for conference submissions and responses to calls for papers that are, in legal scholarship, often written before the text abstracted has been finalized. Sharing abstracts are, on the other hand, abstracts written for the purposes of disseminating a completed text – an abstract accompanying a journal article upon publication for example. (Book blurbs comprise a professional writing genre in their own right and are not discussed here.) The writing of pitching abstracts and the writing of sharing abstracts are both exercises in reader seduction, but exercises of distinct kinds.
For a pitching abstract, one’s initial audience is usually knowable so it is important to make good use of this information. The first step in writing such an abstract, therefore, is to identify by whom – and reflect on how – your abstract will be evaluated. If your abstract is responsive to a call for papers, read the call carefully, look at the scholarly work of the editors or convenors, and think about what they are trying to achieve in putting out this call and how you could contribute to that. If you are pitching to present at an annual conference, look at prior programs for that conference, including abstracts of work presented there previously (if available). Think about the kinds of debates and conversations that have been ongoing at the conference and how and where your own intervention might fit among those or carve out some new space in their midst. Identify some of the abstracts from prior years of the conference that you find most arresting and compelling; these may be useful to emulate.
Much of the advice about abstract writing for pitching purposes stresses the importance of identifying a gap in the prior literature and explaining how the work that you aim to present will fill it. (See here, for example.) The formula of “gap-filling” can, however, be a bit restrictive; it is possible to frame the value of your contribution in a range of ways. What is important, nonetheless, is clarity and connection. That is, it is important that an abstract convey – as crisply and lucidly as possible – how the work to be presented relates to prior work in its field and to other work presented in the conference, special issue or edited volume of which it aspires to be part. Some questions that you might ask yourself in order to arrive at a formulation of this message include the following. What problems are you setting out to solve? What confusions do you wish to clarify? What previously unknown or unfortunately neglected story are you planning to tell? How is this paper different from others that might be anticipated at this event and why or to whom might that difference matter? There are some good examples from historians here.
The writing of a sharing abstract is a different kind of task. These tend to be shorter than pitching abstracts. They are less oriented towards contextualization and more towards seizing attention. Their purpose is to quickly convey to a journal editor and ultimately to an unknown reader why they might want to read your article or essay. A sharing abstract is something of a sales document (as crass as that may sound) and something of a storytelling text. It can be useful to think about its narrative arc: its beginning, middle, and end. First and last lines are especially important. It can be worthwhile, also, to think about a sharing abstract’s online “searchability”; what are the keywords searches that you would like your abstract to be picked up in; do they feature in your abstract?
There is a lot of emphases, in online advice about abstract writing, on the importance of careful editing (see here for example). Spelling or grammatical errors and writing in excess of specified word limits are avoidable mistakes that can sabotage the fate of the finest abstracts. If writing an abstract outside one’s native language, it is always worthwhile having a native speaker of that language cast an eye over it before submission (editor’s note: see the post by Basak Etkin). The same goes for writing outside one’s usual scholarly field.
There has been far less emphasis, however, on the value of intriguing, captivating abstracts; my own have, upon reflection, tended to be rather pedestrian. For this purpose, there may be something to be gained from reading into the genre of “flash fiction”, micro-essays, or very short stories as a source of inspiration. The Barthelme Prize is awarded annually for short prose or fiction under 500 words. Reading the work of prior years’ winners – and other writings in this genre – offers an important reminder that one does not need a lot of words to say and do a lot.
Finally, a word about abstract rejection. In academic life, it happens to everyone in some form or other. From one angle, it is a relatively small slight, not as bad as having a long manuscript rejected. From another vantage point, it can be especially frustrating. To have a pitching abstract rejected is to be refused even a chance to have a try, to have a look around. FOMO may descend. To this, the answer is… there is no single answer. Do what you need to do; talk to friends who can solidarize, commiserate and offer distraction. There is no shortage of writing about academic rejection: read some of it, if it helps to recognize that you are not alone. Add it to your “arsenal of anger” if you will. Above all, write on.