The gentle art of the abstract

Taking notes by @boetter Jacob Bøtter

I have abstracts on my mind, we are collecting the hoard submitted for the Spiritual | Complaint colloquium, and arranging them into possible sections for the book, while hoping for more for the Isaiah and Empire colloquium which otherwise looks like requiring each participant to write two chapters ;)

In the meanwhile I was writing to a nervous postgraduate researcher who has to produce an abstract for a presentation to our research seminar. I had commented that the function of an abstract was to “sell” your paper as interesting and something the reader might want to hear. She suggested mentioning chocolate, so I replied:

“I think outright bribery is frowned upon, but massaging the abstract, or filling it with wishful thinking is normal.

This paper will explore...” means “I really hope that this line of approach, that I have not tried yet, sounds really interesting to me, and I hope that maybe it will allow me to have something worthwhile to say by the time the event comes round.
Previous research has shown...” either means “I think I read somewhere, but can’t for the life of me be sure, that…” or possibly “This current paper is a rehash of work I did last year which I am tarting up in the hopes of another publication, because I am too busy to think of new ideas.”

Do you have suggested “translations” for similar stock phrases from abstracts? (Not phrases you have used, of course, but ones that others might use that have a similar split between surface and deep meanings ;)

3 comments on “The gentle art of the abstract

  1. Tim


  2. Judy Redman

    Just catching up on a month’s worth of blogging. In the field of Education, the current trend is to make you submit a paper for review, with an abstract attached. This gives you a reasonable chance of having the abstract match the content of the paper reasonably closely, which is nice, but doesn’t actually help much in terms of how closely the presentation matches the abstract content.

    I recently presented at a colloquium where concise papers were to be about 2,500 words. When I read mine out loud, I discovered that if I spoke too fast, I could get through it in 14 minutes and I only had 10 minutes to present (with 5 mins for questions). My presentation was on the same theme, but presented a quite different slant on my research. Long papers were to be 5,000 words, with 20 mins to present and 5 mins for questions. I listened to about 15 or 20 presentations of varying lengths and only one presenter was foolish enough to try to read her manuscript. She apologised for doing it, and was by far the least engaging presenter of the colloquium.

    Realistically, the lead time between submission of abstracts/papers for a conference and the actual delivery is so long that almost everyone will rethink what they’ve said they’ll say by the time they stand up to present. :-)