How to Conference: Writing the Paper 1

Do I HAVE to? The Pros and Cons of Writing Out a Conference Paper

One thing people – especially those pressed for time – wonder is if you should even bother writing out your paper fully. For some, a detailed outline may suffice; others will move that outline to PowerPoint notes and worth from those.

In fact, there are pros and cons to writing a full draft of your paper:

PROS

  • you will have a pretty accurate sense of how long your paper runs
  • you can share it online after you present it, should you choose to do so
  • you can send it to people who couldn’t make the panel but want to know what you said

These are all good reasons to write it out. Generally speaking, a 15 minute paper should be no more than about 7 double-spaced, 8.5×11 inch pages (Times New Roman) – or roughly 1750 words. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule – you may speak quickly or slowly, you may have a lot of/few slides to show, etc. But a paper in that ballpark is generally not going to get you into trouble with the moderator.

Why might you want to share your paper, either on a website (your own, Humanities Commons, or – and some would balk at this – Academia.edu) or person-to-person with someone who asks for it? Among other things, it gets your name out there and associated with your ideas. Of course, if the paper went poorly you may not want the evidence lingering in the vastness of the Internet for all eternity. But if it went well – if you generated good questions and/or conversation, if someone told you afterwards that they enjoyed it – then consider posting it. People cite conference papers if they’re accessible, and posting them can be a way to introduce your work to people who might find themselves interested when it comes up on a Google search.

CONS

  • the temptation to read directly from the paper is strong
  • the temptation to write the paper like an essay is also strong

As I’ll talk about in an upcoming post, reading your paper is not necessarily a bad thing (that groaning sound you just heard is from the masses who skulk around Twitter complaining about people who read their papers). That said, there are good and bad ways to do it, and people tend to default to the bad ways – never looking up from the page, reading quickly because they’re nervous, reading in a monotone, and otherwise failing to connect with the audience. If this is what would likely happen to you, don’t write it out (OR, if you do, prepare for your presentation by first putting the paper away).

Arguably more importantly, when you write out a paper for presentation, it can often end up sounding a LOT like an essay, and as I talked about in a previous post, a conference paper is NOT, nor should it be, an essay.

So, say you want to write it out for all the above PROs, but you want to avoid the essay trap? One way to do this is to write it out as, or like, an academic blog post. Generally speaking, while academic blog posts often have a theoretical gist, research, citations, etc., they tend to be written for ease of reading – more conversational, less complex (or convoluted) sentence structure, cut to the chase in terms of what they’re talking about. If they change topic, they’re often broken into two or more parts, with each part containing a single focus within the bigger whole. They may and often do use images to illustrate, which might be considered the functional equivalent of slides.

This is what you want your conference paper to do – communicate your argument succinctly and as engagingly as possible. If you have a blog, it can be helpful to actually write out the paper in the blog editor itself – for me, that can take off some of the felt pressure of having to write a perfect paper, and it will get me in a more conversational frame of mind.

As in all things, this is obviously dependent on your specific field and/or subfield, but even if yours tends towards formality, avoid writing an essay at all costs. You can sound professional and erudite and still keep your paper to what people can absorb in the 15 minutes you’re allotted.