Kill Your Darlings
You have the best research question on the planet, and you want everyone to know about it. ALL about it. So let me burst your bubble by saying that, at a conference, that’s impossible.
“But wait!” you say. “I just need to get this [unrelated to the paper itself] information into the paper. Just this bit, because it’s so cool.”
“No,” I respond. Because NO.
You’re going to want to do this. And as you try to squeeze that one thing into your paper, you’re going to find that it just. doesn’t. work. You may not recognize that it’s not working because of this, and if you don’t your tendency may well be to further complicate things by trying to wedge that square peg into that round hole. If you find yourself spinning your wheels and trying to get a LOT into a very limited amount of time/number of pages, stop and revisit what exactly your argument is. The ONE argument you’re making, not ALL the arguments that are related to it.
This is a particular problem when you’re presenting some part of a larger project – your PhD dissertation, say. You may be presenting on something that others have presented on before, but no one will have thought about it the way you do and, what’s more, by the time you get to the conference you will likely be an expert on that thing. You will know it backwards and forwards, you’ll be able to answer any question about it. And, being an expert on it, you may want to make sure everyone gets all the juicy stuff. Yet, despite how it sometimes feels in graduate school, many humanities conference papers are something as simple as someone working out a new idea or playing with an object/topic that’s not big enough for a sustained research project, but which nonetheless is worth some consideration.
If you’re working from your dissertation or some other large project, try to think in those terms as well – what’s the one thing you want to tell people? What’s the coolest case study? What’s the most audacious claim you make? ONE thing, and be prepared to kill – ruthlessly – any of the other darlings that try and slither their way into your paper.