A conference paper? it may be five texts, not one…


Conference season begins again. Well it certainly seems that way – there are lots of calls around for papers, workshops and posters.

A conference paper seems like an easy thing to do. Just write the abstract, then write the actual paper, and then present it. Not too hard.

And not high stakes at all. A conference paper is not the same as the journal article you write for review for instance. It’s not subject to reviewers’ critiques – well no, hang on, it is. Pretty well all conference abstracts get reviewed in order to be accepted.

Well OK. But it’s not like a conference paper is going to be published and permanently out there in the world with your name attached to it.  – well no, hang on, it is. These days many conference papers are refereed, and published in conference proceedings. And more often than not, someone tweets your slides, and their interpretation of what you’ve said, and that’s then permanently out there in the world with your name on it.

It’s the word paper that’s deceptive. Paper. One. Only one. But writing and giving a conference paper is actually a lot of work.  While it’s true that what you present might not the final version of a paper, it still requires the production of a decent text. Well no, hang on, actually multiple texts.  A conference paper is many sets  of words. A conference paper  is neither simple nor singular.

Let’s list how many texts there might actually be.

The abstract. This text is your bid for acceptance. The abstract has to be well argued and a good fit with the conference themes. It has to get past reviewers who may have different ideas from you about what constitutes a piece of research. More and more conferences now provide abstract templates that you have to shoehorn your proposed paper into. So, the abstract is not necessarily a text you can just dash off. For competitive/desirable conferences, you have to put a fair bit of careful thought and revision into the conference abstract

The paper. Your conference paper might be polished, perhaps even already published. But more often than not, it’s work in progress. However, regardless of its status, you may be asked to submit your paper before the conference. Perhaps it’s to go on a website. Flipped conferences require this, you have to read papers before you attend and the sessions are pretty well all discussion. Or… You may have to submit a paper to a symposium chair and/or a discussant. You may be asked to distribute the paper in your session and be advised how many copies to bring. (Sometimes people put their paper on a website and just distribute the address).

A slideshow. Now a PowerPoint slideshow isn’t mandatory. But these days most people do have something visual. A good slideshow takes more than a couple of hours to put together. A good set of slides doesn’t mean cutting and pasting bits of the conference paper. You really have to go back to make a new outline and organise the slides around that. And because most conference time slots are 15 to 30 minutes, at most, the number of slides you can have is pretty small. And if you don’t want them to be completely unreadable, you need to work with less slides than you want, and fewer words.

This means you also need

A script or set of notes to guide your talk. You may well need to have something to guide what you say, in addition to your slides. Whether you talk from notes that sit under or next to your slides, or use library cards, or an edited version of your paper, this means you have to write another text. One that is written to speak aloud. Not the same as writing the paper. Not the same text as is on the slides. The good thing about writing a speaking text is that you can talk the presentation through beforehand to make sure that you can fit what you have to say within time.

A handout. Some conferences now ask you to prepare a handout which lists the main points you will make. This is not a print-out of the slides, but a guide to the argument you are going to make. A handout is a long abstract. A handout usually also lists key references and may or may not point the session attendees to the full paper.

Now of course you may not have to do all five of these texts. It’s not unheard of for people to skip writing the full paper and just do a slide show and a script to talk to. But conferences are increasingly suspicious of people ‘winging it’, and are asking people to produce more by way of handout or full paper.And you can see the point of that I’m sure.

So to sum up. A conference paper is generally not a case of ‘not much work’. It is simply different work to writing a paper for a journal.

And the conference paper may be a helpful step towards a journal article.  Writing all of these five steps – abstract, working paper, slides, handouts – does force you to think about and re-present your research multiple times. This repetition helps you to find the most salient details, the most persuasive order of information and the answer to the So What question. This text refining, even without helpful feedback or difficult questions at the conference, can be highly significant in getting your paper to a publishable state.