Conference Writing for Dummies - there's a hidden market here.
September 7, 2010 3:12 PM   Subscribe

Conference writing for dummies? (Or non-academics?)

There are some conferences coming up that involve my field/career path and which welcome contributions from people with personal experience but aren't necessarily from an academic background. I'm interested in contributing, but it's been a year or two since I had anything to do with academia and I'm not sure how to write an appropriate conference paper.

I asked at the local library but some minutes of searching didn't even turn up a basic "how to write a conference paper" type guide. There's one or two for scientific research, but the conferences I'm thinking of deal more with the creative arts or society. Searching on Amazon or Google Books revealed not much useful either.

Is there a great Conference Writing for Non-Academics guide somewhere? I did an undergrad degree and do a great deal of writing anyway, but didn't have to do any major academic paper, so I'm not sure what's appropriate in terms of style or voice or format. I know other friends who are in similar predicaments - presenting at a conference with plenty of personal experience but not enough academic background - and they haven't found much either.

How should a conference paper read or sound like? How academic must it sound especially if you're drawing more on first-hand experience? How do you write a proposal?
posted by divabat to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In terms of style/voice/format: Conferences (academic and otherwise) vary widely in terms of what they expect for a paper. Do these conferences have papers from previous years available anywhere? Your best bet would be to look at some of those for each conference, and try to mimic them.

In terms of how to write an appropriate paper - I'm not sure what the scope of this question is, but assuming you're asking about general tips, etc, here are some good ones I've learned. (Caveat: I mainly write academic papers, but I think the apply more generally).

- Give yourself lots of time for revision, and expect to go through at least 2-5 major edits. The biggest mistake less-experienced people make is assuming the first or second draft is ready to go.

- Figure out what "story" you're telling, and what 1-2 main ideas you want people to come away with, and structure the entire thing around that. When you write sentences/paragraphs, ask yourself "how does this advance my story?" and if it doesn't, change it so it does. This is especially important with conference papers, because they're generally fairly short, so if you try to cram more than 1-2 main ideas in, it will just be a muddled mess.

- Be explicit in your writing about where you're going and why. Think about it like you're guiding people along a path; your job is to dribble out breadcrumbs at the exact right rate (not too fast, or they get delayed picking up breadcrumbs and never get to the end; not too slow, or they starve to death before reaching the end). And it's easier to get people to hang in there if they know where you're going and why it's important. I always start with a very basic outline, no more than five lines, for the entire paper, which gives it its structure; ymmv. Again, fairly important with conference papers, because they're not that long. On the other hand, many conferences have a structure you have to follow, which makes this part a bit easier.

- All the normal writing things: try not to overuse passives; use short, strong words; don't be overly wordy; read things aloud to yourself to see if they make sense; etc.

- Ignore all of these suggestions (except the outline one) when you're writing your first draft. There your goal is just to get words on paper. In the edits, you fix all these other things.

I'm not sure if these were helpful, because I'm not sure precisely what sort of "how to write" tips you wanted, but hopefully this is useful even if it wasn't directly on target.
posted by forza at 3:33 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

On re-read, it looks to me like you're mainly worried about style/voice/format, in which case most of my other tips look woefully out of place. Oh well; sorry.

I do think for style/voice/format, it's hard to come up with general advice (which may explain the paucity of references), because so much is so conference-specific. Looking up old papers from that conference, particularly any that relate first-hand experience (if that's what you're doing), is probably by far the best thing you can do.
posted by forza at 3:36 PM on September 7, 2010

forza: Your advice is great! As far as I can tell, this is the first conference they've had on this topic, so I don't really have a lot to work from. I've contacted the organisers but haven't heard back yet.
posted by divabat at 3:46 PM on September 7, 2010

8 pages double spaced is about 15 minutes of talk. Choose a couple of major points, make them, and make sure to leave time for the other people on the panel.
posted by pickypicky at 4:08 PM on September 7, 2010

Looking up old papers from that conference, particularly any that relate first-hand experience (if that's what you're doing), is probably by far the best thing you can do.

This is exactly what I was going to suggest. If they aren't easily available online, try and track down conference programs from previous years and contact people with interesting sounding papers directly.
posted by Forktine at 5:38 PM on September 7, 2010

Ah, if this is the first year of the conference, then I would ask the organisers these questions directly -- presumably others will have the same questions, so they might have an already-written page of suggestions to point you to. If they don't, you could ask them if they can point you to an existing conference whose papers have about the right style/tone/etc for what they would like; then you can just use those papers.
posted by forza at 5:55 PM on September 7, 2010

Once again, on re-reading, I need to add something, since I was insufficiently clear. I didn't meant to imply that you hadn't already contacted the organisers -- I was just trying to suggest something that you might ask ithem that would be helpful, assuming you succeed in getting in touch with them. If you never hear from them, I would see if I can identify other conferences that are similar in topic/focus/aims, and try to mimic papers from those.

Best of luck!
posted by forza at 5:58 PM on September 7, 2010

This might be helpful even though it is more about presentation, ignore the discipline specific angle and do the opposite of what is a fairly spot-on analysis:

How to give a bad presentation at a professional conference

posted by Rumple at 5:59 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

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