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Ask Dr. Editor

Proposing and structuring conference papers

Strategies to surprise and excite your audience.



Dr. Editor’s answer:

Whenever I am asked about academic writing resources, I always recommend the University of North Carolina Writing Center’s excellent virtual handouts, and their Conference Paper handout is no exception. UNCWC’s advice on conference papers emphasizes the central role that audience and context play in this genre. I agree with everything they have already written about preparing, writing, and delivering conference papers. So rather than re-trodding the terrain they so astutely map for you, I’ll focus on responding to conference calls, and conclude with a few additional suggestions for structuring your conference paper.

Responding to conference calls

As when submitting to a peer-reviewed journal, it’s key that you tailor your proposal to the conference. Often, this means integrating key aspects of the call or its overarching theme in your abstract. By engaging explicitly with the conference theme or call, you’ll show that you’ll be able to contribute to the broader conversations that the facilitators are seeking to generate. More practically, a consideration of the theme is often part of a reviewer’s assessment rubric, and so can be an easy way to lose or score points.

In addition to considering the needs of your peer reviewers — the first, and potentially the only, audience for your conference proposal — you should also consider the needs of your broader audience: the conference participants who will attend your presentation. Focus on what they will get out of your paper. You might offer them fascinating factoids or truly novel findings — for example, I learned at a conference that the British public didn’t know about the existence of the gorilla until 1857, and when they first saw the animal’s highly human hands, their minds were blown. That conference took place in 2009, and I still remember the paper well. Who doesn’t want to learn Victorian gorilla factoids?

More valuable, however, would be to emphasize how your work engages with your field’s current conversations. There are many ways bring about this emphasis — you might, for example, argue that:

  • your methodology is novel or transferrable;
  • your work can contribute to greater efficiencies or compelling results that are transferrable across contexts;
  • you’re bringing together two theoretical lenses that aren’t often considered in tandem; or,
  • your argument can help your field to reconceptualize its consideration of important social, historical, or cultural abstract concepts like gender, class, artistic value, the nation, the body, language, emotion, reason, and so on.

In short: know how your argument advances conversations in the field, and make your contributions explicit. Of course, in order to know how your work moves important ongoing conversations forward in your field, you must know the literature. Show this in your abstract, not by summarizing others’ arguments, but rather by articulating how your work builds on, deviates from, or nuances recent research.

Structuring your conference paper

I’ve written previously about using visualization strategies to organize journal articles and about strategically structuring individual paragraphs. That advice still stands.

Yet the conference paper is unique because it’s usually delivered aloud, and so particular consideration must be given to the needs of a listening, rather than a reading, audience. To engage and even surprise your reader, I suggest:

  1. Write for the ear. If you’re reading aloud from a script, use strategies that will make it easier for your reader to follow your argument:
    • avoid complicated sentence structures with multiple phrases and clauses;
    • reduce or eliminate passive voice constructions;
    • paraphrase rather than read lengthy quotations;
    • use contractions — “don’t” rather than “do not”;
    • tell character-driven stories; and,
    • annotate your script, indicating where you need to stress a word, pause, or drink water.
  1. Speak for 18 or 19 rather than the full 20 minutes. Your audience will appreciate your concision, and a shorter talk will leave more time for discussion. If it’s conventional in your discipline to read from a script, aim for nine double-spaced pages of content. A considerate speaker practices their presentation out loud in advance of the conference, and times their talk to ensure they don’t go over their allocated time.
  2. Integrate a twist at around the two-thirds mark of your paper — at about the 13-minute mark for a 20-minute talk. When I deliver conference papers, I sometimes signal this twist by saying something dramatic like, “I now want to undermine everything that I’ve just argued up to this point,” followed by a reconsideration of my thesis from an alternate angle. Including a twist shows that you’re integrating complexities into your discussion, and also that you’re willing to hear and consider alternate takes on your topic after your panel is complete.A twist that is signaled with a dramatic cue will also surprise your audience. Such twists are unconventional. Most presenters don’t uncut their own arguments: it’s hard to stand in front of a room and say that what you’ve just argued has an significant hole that you’re now going to dive into. By surprising your audience, you’ll re-engage them in your topic, excite them about your approach, and gift them with an easy way to start a conversation with you over coffee after the presentation.
  1. Close with big picture questions, especially when your thesis or topic is niche or non-canonical. By speaking to the significance or implications of your argument, and by opening your topic to the audience for their perspective, you can draw on your audience members’ perspectives to add depth and breadth to your argument when you continue to develop it after the conference ends.

Have an important conference coming up? Want an editor’s eye on your draft paper or proposal? I’d be happy to spend an hour or two reviewing your work and providing suggestions for revision, restructuring, or rewriting. Find out how to hire me at

Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at
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