Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books
This resource will help undergraduate, graduate, and professional scholars write proposals for academic conferences, articles, and books.
Contributors: Martina Jauch, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-02-14 03:33:31
An important part of the work completed in academia is sharing our scholarship with others. Such communication takes place when we present at scholarly conferences, publish in peer-reviewed journals, and publish in books. This OWL resource addresses the steps in writing for a variety of academic proposals.
For samples of conference proposals, article abstracts and proposals, and book proposals, click here.
Beginning the process
Make sure you read the call for papers carefully to consider the deadline and orient your topic of presentation around the buzzwords and themes listed in the document. You should take special note of the deadline and submit prior to that date, as late submissions leave a bad impression and suggest poor planning skills.
If you have previously spoken on or submitted a proposal on the same essay topic, you should carefully adjust it specifically for this conference or even completely rewrite the proposal based on your changing and evolving research.
The topic you are proposing should be one that you can cover easily within a time frame of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. You should stick to the required word limit of the conference call, usually 250 to 300 words. The organizers have to read a large number of proposals, especially in the case of an international or interdisciplinary conference, and will appreciate your brevity.
Structure and components
A conference proposal will typically consist of an introduction to your topic, which should not amount to more than one-third of the length of your submission, followed by your thesis statement and a delineation of your approach to the problem.
You should then explain why your thesis is original and innovative as well as important and interesting to scholars who might be outside your specific area of research. As Kate Turabian states, “whether your role at a conference is to talk or only listen depends not just on the quality of your research, but on the significance of your question” (Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2007. p. 128). This portion takes up approximately three to five lines, whereas the rest (approximately another third of the total length) focuses on the conclusion that you will arrive at in your essay and exemplary evidence.
Important considerations for the writing process
First and foremost, you need to consider your future audience carefully in order to determine both how specific your topic can be and how much background information you need to provide in your proposal. Larger conferences, such as regional MLA meetings or the ALA (American Literature Association) will require you to direct your remarks to an audience that might not conduct research on the same time period or literary field at all.
Along those lines, you might want to check whether you are basing your research on specific prior research and terminology that requires further explanation. As a rule, always phrase your proposal clearly and specifically, avoid over-the-top phrasing and jargon, but do not negate your own personal writing style in the process.
If you would like to add a quotation to your proposal, you are not required to provide a citation or footnote of the source, although it is generally preferred to mention the author’s name. Always put quotes in quotation marks and take care to limit yourself to at most one or two quotations in the entire proposal text. Furthermore, you should always proofread your proposal carefully and check whether you have integrated details, such as author’s name, the correct number of words, year of publication, etc. correctly.
If you are comparing and contrasting two different authors or subjects, you should clearly outline the process at which you arrive at your conclusion, even in a short proposal. The reader needs to realize the importance and legitimacy of comparing these two themes and get a sense of cohesion.
Types of conference papers and sessions
As a scholar, you may encounter the following presentation types; they cannot be sorted into either the humanities or the sciences. On a general note, however, humanities papers are usually read aloud at a conference, sometimes with the use of audiovisual equipment, and can look at fairly specific aspects of their research area. Social scientists tend to summarize their longer projects and works in order to introduce them to a larger audience and emphasize their usefulness and practical application.
Panel presentations are the most common form of presentation you will encounter in your graduate career. You will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session (the terminology varies depending on the organizers) and be given fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. It is up to the panel organizer to decide upon this framework. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself.
Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.
Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker who gives an approximately thirty-minute paper and a respondent who contributes his own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate his reply to the respondent.
Poster presentations are not very common in the humanities and ask participants to visually display their ideas as either an outline of findings, an essay of several pages length, or, preferably, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images.
Reasons proposals fail/common pitfalls
Depending on the conference, acceptance rates of proposals might range from about 10 percent to almost 100 hundred percent of submissions. Accordingly, you will receive some rejections to your submissions in the course of your career, which, in contrast to book proposals or fellowship applications, do not come with an explanation for the rejection.
There are common pitfalls that you might need to improve on for future proposals.
The proposal does not reflect your enthusiasm and persuasiveness, which usually goes hand in hand with hastily written, simply worded proposals. Generally, the better your research has been, the more familiar you are with the subject and the more smoothly your proposal will come together.
Similarly, proposing a topic that is too broad, can harm your chances of being accepted to a conference. Be sure to have a clear focus in your proposal. Usually, this can be avoided by more advanced research to determine what has already been done, especially if the proposal is judged by an important scholar in the field. Check the names of keynote speakers and other attendees of note to avoid repeating known information or not focusing your proposal.
Your paper might simply have lacked the clear language that proposals should contain. On this linguistic level, your proposal might have sounded repetitious, have had boring wording, or simply displayed carelessness and a lack of proofreading, all of which can be remedied by more revisions.
The following two sample research papers are typical of the papers that might be submitted in different kinds of courses.
Reading these papers will help you learn about organizing an argument and working with sources. The papers also demonstrate the use of MLA style to document sources and the formatting of the margins, line spacing, and other physical attributes of a printed paper. The MLA’s guidelines on formatting papers appear elsewhere on this site.
The sample papers were written by MLA staff members who are experienced college teachers. You may find that the writing and documentation seem polished. Because the sample papers serve as models, we aimed to make them free of errors in grammar and documentation. Nevertheless, we hope that the papers usefully represent good student work.
This paper, on Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series, shows you how to incorporate figures into your text, style a block quotation, and cite a variety of sources. Read about block quotations in the MLA Handbook (1.3.2–3, 1.3.7).
This paper, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and the courtship novel, features examples of how to use notes in MLA style, cite a dictionary definition, and more.