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Abstracts are like sculptures … and sometimes trees

September 10, 2009

The last month or so has been abstract-writing season. For me, there are three upcoming conferences in the U.S. that include sessions appropriate for my interests and expertise — GSA, AGU, and AAPG.

GSA is appropriate for my tectonic interests — I will be presenting the results of this work, which is now in press. AGU can be hit or miss for me, but this year there is a fantastic session about external vs. internal forcings on stratigraphic patterns that I was invited to present at (plus it’s local for me, which makes it a no-brainer). AAPG is inherently more applied as a whole, but the meeting usually includes at least a few sessions that delve into basic sedimentary research so it is definitely worth attending.

The deadlines for abstracts for these three meetings are all within a month of each other — the last one, AAPG, is due next week — so I’ve been fairly busy writing my own and reviewing those on which I’m a coauthor.

My strategy for writing conference abstracts has changed over the years. I used to be more concerned with getting the wording exactly right from the start. These days, I tend to go for the ‘brain dump’ method — I just start writing thoughts in a more prose-like way. It is certainly a giant mess at first. Sometimes I still find myself bogged down on details and wordsmithing at this stage, but I try to snap myself out of that. Instead of the blank canvas analogy, I think of it as putting all the clay into a pile before making a sculpture (note: I have no actual experience sculpting, so I could be way off with this analogy). You gotta have something to work with first! You need a lump of ‘stuff’ that can be thrown around and shaped into a general form. And you don’t want to spend time working on nuanced finishing touches at this stage … who knows, the entire thing might need to be reformed. As the form takes shape and looks like something recognizable, the rough edges can be smoothed out and, hopefully, a worthwhile product is created.

For abstracts on which I’m a coauthor I think of them as trees that need some pruning. If it’s in a good shape, just a bit of small-scale pruning around the edges — you know, to make it look a little prettier. If the abstract needs more work, I might modify more significantly — in some cases, I’ll bring out the chainsaw and get rid of substantial limbs. Very rarely do I need to chop the tree down and plant a new one.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2009 10:32 am

    I like the analogies. The clay analogy fits with thesis writing as well (I imagine any technical writing would fit). My first draft came back with the comment that I shouldn’t worry about wording yet, focus on “What [I] did, Why [I] did it, and What it means”.

  2. September 10, 2009 11:50 am

    Yeah, for a thesis it’s even bigger … like you were commisioned to create not just one sculpture, but an entire collection that fits together coherently with a consistent theme. Not easy!

  3. September 10, 2009 4:17 pm

    Abstracts are an underappreciated literary form, but if they aren’t good, nobody will seek you out. They’re like a company’s product brochure – the ONLY aim is to get the reader to do one more thing, whether it’s clicking a link or calling up their friendly sales guy, where the selling process goes into high gear. In science, they have to include some higher vision and promise progress in an engaging major problem. Promising insight into global warming has gotten hollow as a catch-all come-on.

    Given that AGU has gotten more than 15,000 abstracts, you need to work hard on them to make them stand out.

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