Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books
This resource will help undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholars write proposals for academic conferences, articles, and books.
Contributors: Martina Jauch, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:33:31
An important part of the work completed in academia is sharing our scholarship with others. Such communication takes place when we present at scholarly conferences, publish in peer-reviewed journals, and publish in books. This OWL resource addresses the steps in writing for a variety of academic proposals.
For samples of conference proposals, article abstracts and proposals, and book proposals, click here.
Beginning the process
Make sure you read the call for papers carefully to consider the deadline and orient your topic of presentation around the buzzwords and themes listed in the document. You should take special note of the deadline and submit prior to that date, as late submissions leave a bad impression and suggest poor planning skills.
If you have previously spoken on or submitted a proposal on the same essay topic, you should carefully adjust it specifically for this conference or even completely rewrite the proposal based on your changing and evolving research.
The topic you are proposing should be one that you can cover easily within a time frame of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. You should stick to the required word limit of the conference call, usually 250 to 300 words. The organizers have to read a large number of proposals, especially in the case of an international or interdisciplinary conference, and will appreciate your brevity.
Structure and components
A conference proposal will typically consist of an introduction to your topic, which should not amount to more than one-third of the length of your submission, followed by your thesis statement and a delineation of your approach to the problem.
You should then explain why your thesis is original and innovative as well as important and interesting to scholars who might be outside your specific area of research. As Kate Turabian states, “whether your role at a conference is to talk or only listen depends not just on the quality of your research, but on the significance of your question” (Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2007. p. 128). This portion takes up approximately three to five lines, whereas the rest (approximately another third of the total length) focuses on the conclusion that you will arrive at in your essay and exemplary evidence.
Important considerations for the writing process
First and foremost, you need to consider your future audience carefully in order to determine both how specific your topic can be and how much background information you need to provide in your proposal. Larger conferences, such as regional MLA meetings or the ALA (American Literature Association) will require you to direct your remarks to an audience that might not conduct research on the same time period or literary field at all.
Along those lines, you might want to check whether you are basing your research on specific prior research and terminology that requires further explanation. As a rule, always phrase your proposal clearly and specifically, avoid over-the-top phrasing and jargon, but do not negate your own personal writing style in the process.
If you would like to add a quotation to your proposal, you are not required to provide a citation or footnote of the source, although it is generally preferred to mention the author’s name. Always put quotes in quotation marks and take care to limit yourself to at most one or two quotations in the entire proposal text. Furthermore, you should always proofread your proposal carefully and check whether you have integrated details, such as author’s name, the correct number of words, year of publication, etc. correctly.
If you are comparing and contrasting two different authors or subjects, you should clearly outline the process at which you arrive at your conclusion, even in a short proposal. The reader needs to realize the importance and legitimacy of comparing these two themes and get a sense of cohesion.
Types of conference papers and sessions
As a scholar, you may encounter the following presentation types; they cannot be sorted into either the humanities or the sciences. On a general note, however, humanities papers are usually read aloud at a conference, sometimes with the use of audiovisual equipment, and can look at fairly specific aspects of their research area. Social scientists tend to summarize their longer projects and works in order to introduce them to a larger audience and emphasize their usefulness and practical application.
Panel presentations are the most common form of presentation you will encounter in your graduate career. You will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session (the terminology varies depending on the organizers) and be given fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. It is up to the panel organizer to decide upon this framework. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself.
Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.
Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker who gives an approximately thirty-minute paper and a respondent who contributes his own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate his reply to the respondent.
Poster presentations are not very common in the humanities and ask participants to visually display their ideas as either an outline of findings, an essay of several pages length, or, preferably, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images.
Reasons proposals fail/common pitfalls
Depending on the conference, acceptance rates of proposals might range from about 10 percent to almost 100 hundred percent of submissions. Accordingly, you will receive some rejections to your submissions in the course of your career, which, in contrast to book proposals or fellowship applications, do not come with an explanation for the rejection.
There are common pitfalls that you might need to improve on for future proposals.
The proposal does not reflect your enthusiasm and persuasiveness, which usually goes hand in hand with hastily written, simply worded proposals. Generally, the better your research has been, the more familiar you are with the subject and the more smoothly your proposal will come together.
Similarly, proposing a topic that is too broad, can harm your chances of being accepted to a conference. Be sure to have a clear focus in your proposal. Usually, this can be avoided by more advanced research to determine what has already been done, especially if the proposal is judged by an important scholar in the field. Check the names of keynote speakers and other attendees of note to avoid repeating known information or not focusing your proposal.
Your paper might simply have lacked the clear language that proposals should contain. On this linguistic level, your proposal might have sounded repetitious, have had boring wording, or simply displayed carelessness and a lack of proofreading, all of which can be remedied by more revisions.
Assistant Professor, Universidad San Francisco de Quito
Depending on your institution's guidelines, you will either finish your PhD by having a number of papers accepted for publication, or by writing a "big book"-style thesis.
This post is entirely aimed at those of us who spend months on end delivering a thesis of several hundreds of pages. We might be overly proud of having our baby finally sent out into the world, but then it will dawn upon us: the majority of researchers would prefer to read a 10-page paper about a more specific part of this research than plow through our 400 pages of labor. The only one who would ever want to read through it all and spend an entire week making sense of your thesis is a fellow PhD student….
And thus, for most of us "big book"-thesis-writing-and-publishing folks, we'll need to revisit all our material again after publication of the thesis, and turn it into a number of journal papers.
If you are lucky enough to get into a post-doc position that is fully research-oriented, you have all the time (or at least, you might think you have) to write your papers. If you venture out into the industry, you'll have to do it in your evenings and weekends.
Regardless of the time constraints, it's still extremely valuable to take the step of turning your dissertation into journal papers. Two years past my thesis defense, I'm reaching the end of this process (with a number of papers published, a number in review and a few more to write). Below are some of my observations on the process.
1. Plan for it
After you graduate, life is going to take over. You might be changing jobs, moving to a different place/city/country, and these papers might start to slip to the back of your mind. Take some time while your dissertation is still freshly printed, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Which chapters or subchapters would serve as a good journal paper?
- Which journal should I submit my work to?
- How much time do I think I need for writing this paper?
Then, start planning paper by paper. I’m keeping an overview in a Google docs spreadsheet with the papers, the journals I want to submit to, and the tentative self-imposed deadlines. My goal is to produce six new drafts per year, but some months are entirely filled with dealing with reviewers’ comments, delivering research reports with new work, or teaching duties. I typically give my co-authors (maximum) a month to send their feedback. The feedback is usually limited, so I might need just a morning to make a few changes, and then submit. I plan to start writing the next paper (or replying to reviewers’ comments and reworking the manuscript) whenever the draft of the previous one is done, so that I create a constant stream of writing, revising, sending to co-authors and submitting.
2. Enlist some good co-authors
Now that you have -hopefully- worked well with your thesis committee members, and implemented their advice to deliver the final draft of your dissertation, is there any part of your research that particularly benefited from their input? If you are planning to write a paper on this topic, consider inviting this committee member to be a co-author.
Writing with authors other than your supervisor will improve your writing, and is typically well-received in most fields. Publishing with different authors shows that you can work across research groups and universities and that you are ready to reach out into the world.
3. Remember that not all papers are born equal
Some papers will roll out from your dissertation in just a few writing sessions. For other papers you'll be sweating and sighing as you try to force a piece of research into a stand-alone narrative. Don't get mad at yourself or your work - just accept this fact as it is. And if the frustration becomes too much, head to the gym, grab some chocolate or do whatever typically relieves your stress.
Have you published several papers from the work in your dissertation? How did you organize this, and what advice would you like to share with me?
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