Writing Abstracts & Proposals

Abstracts and short proposals are a common form of academic writing. The two terms are not always interchangeable, though. For the purposes of this course, you will be learning about how to write an abstracted version of your final paper’s argument, which will also serve as your final project proposal. The purpose of our assignment is to distill the core argument you plan to make in your final paper, to give a sense of how you feel your argument fits into a much larger discussion we’ve been having this semester about scholarly communication and text, and to provide a glimpse of the examples, sources, or materials you will draw on to make your argument.

What follows is designed to be a resource as you write and revise your abstract. It includes suggested reading, tips and prompting questions, samples, guiding questions for revision, and next steps.

Before you begin, suggested reading

What is an abstract? How can an abstract serve as a proposal for a paper that you have not yet written? Why are they helpful and whom are they designed to help? How do you write a strong claim that you have only begun to research? The following pieces include valuable contextual information about what abstracts are, how they are used, why they matter, and what features a well-written abstract should include.

Tips for this assignment

This assignment asks that you write a conference abstract or proposal (see the UNC Chapel Hill Writing Center handout above if you are not sure what this means) that is no more than 250 words. If you have read the suggested materials above, you already know that a well-written abstract takes into consideration: the reason for writing, the problem or debate the paper or presentation will address, the methods that the paper/article will employ, the results of your analysis, and the big picture, or the significance of your paper in a larger context, such as your field of study or public debate. In this case, the “larger picture” should include how the presentation will address the larger question that is the purpose of the roundtable. You might begin writing your abstract by answering these questions:

  • What is the motivation for writing your paper? What is the big picture, and why is it important? To answer these questions, you will want to reread the prompts and think about how the questions they raise fit into the bigger picture in terms of the readings for the course so far and the discussions we have had in class.
  • What argument will you make? Rather than just describing the “problem,” you want to make sure your abstract has at least one sentence that states your thesis clearly. Be careful not to just describe or report on what others have said.
  • How will you substantiate your claim? In other words, what kinds of secondary sources will you draw on? Will you use primary source materials? Will you use personal experience? Case studies?
  • What are the possible results of your argument? Follow your thinking forward into the future. How has scholarly communication already changed or how might it change in your field or related fields as a result of your argument or arguments similar to yours?
  • What actions might or should we take based on your paper? Does your paper have implications for teaching? for public knowledge? for researchers in your field?
  • You may choose to cite sources in your abstract. If so, DO avoid lengthy quotations and DO provide a proper end citation in either MLA or Chicago Manual Style format.

Sample abstracts and proposals

Guiding Questions for Revision

Writing a strong abstract or proposal will absolutely entail a good deal of revision and rewriting–especially when you have a word limit as you do in this assignment. Here are some questions to consider as you are revising your writing.

  • Does the abstract meet the word limit? In our own assignment, the limit is 250 words. This is slightly longer than one page of Times New Roman 10 or 12 pt font.
  • If you are significantly under the word limit, you may want to make sure that you have spent at least one sentence on each of the elements of the proposal. You may want to revisit the post from The Professor is In, which gives each sentence an explicit purpose.
  • If you are over the word limit, could you remove “meta thinking” commentary. For example, rather than writing “I will argue that….” consider simply striking those words from the sentence and beginning with your argument. Would that work?
  • Does your abstract explain how your own position or thesis fits into a larger conversation that is taking place? Consider how another author we have read this semester might respond to what you say. Could you place your own idea in conversation with theirs?
  • Are you making an argument or describing what other authors say? Is there a way to reshape your abstract so that any sources you use are in support of, not in place of, your own unique perspective?
  • Who is your audience? Does your abstract give adequate context and background information for a general academic audience?

How to Help Yourself

Despite the myth of the lone academic, most good writers surround themselves with a network of support. When scholars write abstracts for conferences, they often plan to use the conference as an opportunity to test their thoughts as they revise them for publication. Through writing groups, working groups, scholarly societies, and other networks, academics share their work in the hopes of getting feedback that ultimately improves their writing and research. As we begin the publication process, peer reviewers evaluate and will often provide thoughtful feedback to improve a submission. Editors and copy editors will also suggest revisions along the way.

As you begin your writing process, consider using this an opportunity to build your writing network. What resources are available to you? You might consider reaching out to a classmate over Slack and swapping drafts of your abstract. You can use the questions above to structure your feedback to one another. The Writing Center offers online appointments, as well as workshops and “co-writing” Zoom meetings. You may also consider sharing your abstract with a librarian through the “Ask a Librarian” chatbot if you are looking for additional resources.

Next Steps: Using the abstract to enrich your writing process

The abstract or short proposal can be useful as you prepare your final portfolio for the semester. It can serve as a starting point for conversation with others and prompt feedback and discussion that lead to new sources and perspectives. By sharing your preliminary thoughts, you open up the possibility that someone may have a perspective or resource to share that you might not have otherwise seen. You can use your abstract to talk to a librarian about possible materials or databases they may know of that will open up your research process. Workshopping your ideas with peers may lead to connections from class that you had not considered. Comments from your instructor may help you to narrow or broaden your topic to meet the scope of the assignment.

An abstract can also serve as a roadmap. As you write, you may feel your curiosity and interest taking you in new directions that you find exciting, but that ultimately do not serve your initial argument. By revisiting your abstract regularly throughout the writing process, you can consider whether you want to revise or change your initial thesis or use it to make hard decisions about which sources and examples you may choose to leave out in order to keep your paper focused and cohesive. Consider, for example, using your abstract when it comes time to revise your first draft. Does each paragraph somehow lead the reader toward a better understanding of your central claim? Even so, abstracts written as proposals are often like the opening argument in a discussion: the more you listen, learn, read, and write, it’s possible that your position may change. Don’t worry. That’s very normal. You can always revise your abstract to match your thesis as it evolves.