How to Write a Conference Paper

This is the second of four installments published every Wednesday in November that attempts to answer some frequently asked questions by beginning graduate students.

Today’s topic focuses on how to write an effective conference paper.  Once the conference accepts your beautifully crafted proposal that you wrote last week, it’s time to start shaping that essay/dissertation chapter/writing sample into a conference paper.  Most conference panels are roughly an hour to an hour and a half long.  There are usually two to four speakers per panel (plus a moderator); thus, you will probably have 15-20 minutes to give your paper.  There may or may not be enough time left over for the Q&A session.

As you by now have realized, it takes longer to read a printed page silently than it does to read it out loud.  15-20 minutes speaking translates to 7-10 pages of text, double spaced, etc.  This is not very much writing. A conference paper should be include the most important part of your argument, but it should not be merely an abridged version of your original paper.

For one thing, your conference paper should be heavy-handed with your argument.  Much of your prose will get lost in translation, and what may sound obvious to you will not be so obvious to listeners who are exhausted from listening to panels all day.  Your paper must include a “mapping paragraph” even if your original text does not.  A mapping paragraph spells out explicitly what you will be arguing; it should mimic the structure of your paper and provide the listener with guidance (or, a map).

For English folk, avoid doing too much close-reading.  The paper will quickly become illegible to even the most patient listeners if you need to demarcate quotations every other sentence.  Instead, focus on what is unique or original to your argument.  What are you saying that is unique/different/interesting?

A conference paper is not the location to make grand, sweeping changes to the field.  It should be provocative, thought-provoking, suggestive.  The ultimate goal is to generate a productive conversation during the Q&A session, not to eradicate entire bodies of thought.  There’s just not enough time or space to do that with one paper.

Many successful papers do not use visual aids, but I have found by and large that the most interesting and constructive presentations provide their listeners with a handout, powerpoint, or other means of visual stimulation.  Make sure to connect it to your paper, however; otherwise, the powerpoint will overshadow your paper and will distract the audience.

Make sure to read your paper aloud once before presenting it.  Written prose can be more complex than spoken text and you don’t want to be startled by a typo or unusual word choice.  Reading the paper out loud will also give you a chance to practice pronouncing those tricky Greek words ahead of time.

Good luck all you paper-writers!  I know you’ll do great.


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