Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Reviewing the situation

So, having handed in my own abstract mere hours before the deadline, I'm now in the situation of reviewing other people's abstracts. And given the difficulty I had writing one, it's surprisingly easy to spot the strengths and weaknesses of those of others. In fact, it's a deeply educative experience. It's also surprisingly similar to, for example, looking at job applications or coursework essays. What makes or breaks any of these things is how well they hit the criteria: criteria which should be attainable by anyone.

1) Word count. If it says 200 it means 200. Not fifty. Not four hundred. Submitting anything by email makes it very easy for the recipient to check the length these days. With job applications it's more likely to suggest one or two pages for a letter. Change the margins, change the font, change the spacing. All fine. Don't go onto that next sheet.
2) Spelling. Spell check is easy. A quick read is easy. Do you really want your abstract out there in the world with a mistake directly under your name for everyone to see and hanging round your neck for ever more?
3) It's seems to be amazingly easy not to actually say what you're going to say. Abstracts have to tell prospective audience members exactly what to expect. When giving tips for theses abstracts, which are slightly different but not much, a lecturer pointed out that academic papers are not murder mysteries: you don't have to carefully conceal whodunnit. In fact, in abstracts, you need to give away all your major suprises up front. It might not be romantic, but it is good practice.
4) Explain what you're talking about. Don't assume people will work out your theoretical perspective, your definitions or your acronyms off their own bat.

In fact, I've come to the conclusion that you could do worse than use Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a model for writing abstracts. Not too big and not too small, it has to be just right. Not too hard and not too soft, it has to be just right. And then, if you're lucky, the three bears of conference organisers won't gobble you up (okay, so slight pushing of Goldilocks, but it's late, and I've just reviewed a bunch of abstracts).

Monday, 23 February 2009

Abstract thoughts

I'll start with a small embarrassed cough. *ahem*.It's only been three months since my last post, I don't know what you're talking about. Although since everyone who speaks at our first year DPhil seminars keeps telling us that we ought to be writing 500 words a day about our research, it is a little embarrassing.

Speaking of embarrassing, so is being on a conference committee and being very lax in getting your abstract submitted. The deadline is about six hours from now, and I just managed to get it in, some weeks after the original call for papers. One of the problems of writing an abstract for a paper you intend to give is that although you may have some idea about what you're going to say, it's not all fully formed yet. An abstract can give you some ideas, but it can also tie you down once you've been accepted and have to sit down and actually write the whole damn paper.

Being a first year, I don't have any results (or indeed any anything) yet, so what's the point of giving a paper at a conference? Well, firstly, this is a student conference, designed to help us develop our presentation skills, get feedback on both them and our projects, and also to practice submitting abstracts for consideration. The abstract is blind peer reviewed, which is also a nice piece of professional development. For this conference, STORIES (STudents' Ongoing Research In Education Studies), the abstract length was only 150 words, but even that much was leaving me with serious writers' block. I'd taken the advice of a second year, and decided to present on potential methodologies for my study. But that was as far as it went.

Luckily that second year had some more tips: a secret formula lightly mentioned in passing by her supervisor. The recipe is as follows:
  • First paragraph = introduce the topic
  • Second paragraph = introduce the problem
  • Third paragraph = say what you're actually going to talk about
And just like that, it flowed from the keyboard. Now all I have to do is worry about what my blind peer reviewer is going to say about it.