How to Conference: Writing the Paper Proposal 4

Odds and Ends: The Art of the Title

I’ll admit upfront: historically, I’ve been an awful title writer. I literally have a published paper called “Trans-cult-ural Fandom: Desire, Technology, and the Transformation of Fan Subjectivities in the Japanese Female Fandom of Hong Kong Stars” – a mostly good article that will probably never get much traction because any potential readers have long since lost interest halfway through the title.

Do not be me.

Conference paper titles in the Humanities tend to have two specific characteristics, which occasionally are the target of ridicule for how faithfully presenters follow them:

  • colons – arguably the most stalwart of all paper title characteristics, they go something like “X pithy, clever title” :colon: “more academese descriptor”
  • puns, alliterations, and kinds of wordplay that evoke the object of your paper

So, for example, I’ve got the following presented papers on my CV (in descending chronological order):

  • The Loquacious Geisha: Lotus Blossom and the ‘Hidden Transcript’ of The Teahouse of the August Moon (2012)
  • Video Killed the Martial Arts Star: Distribution Technologies and the Vagaries of Jackie Chan Fandom in Japan (2014)
  • Rationalized Passions: Sherlock and Nation-Branded Boy Booms in Japan (2015)
  • Outrageous Sirk-umstances: Hannibal, Affective Economy, and Oppositionality in Fan Studies (2017)
  • Yuri!!! on (Thin) Ice: Conflict and Convergence in Transcultural Media Fandoms (2018)

You’ll notice, among other things, they’ve gotten a bit more succinct over the years – particularly the bit following the colon. None is particularly short, but all but one of them (the last) actually do communicate what the paper is about (the last is a bit of a stretch, mostly because the paper itself changed between proposal and presentation – which does happen!).

In general, the part before the colon will not work in a standalone capacity for an academic paper where it’s important to communicate the broader significance of your argument. In contrast, the part after the colon could stand alone, but … would you scrap it? Some – probably much more serious – scholars don’t even do the fun part, but for my part I love a bit of wordplay – that’s up to you.

While all titles are important, there’s one situation where they can play a bigger-than-usual role for a proposal reviewer. If you’re submitting a single paper as part of an open call, rather than as part of a pre-constituted panel, you need to ensure that the title clearly communicates what you’re proposing. Obviously, the quality of the proposal is most important here, but when conference reviewers are making decisions on single papers, they’re often looking for ways to combine them with other papers in a thematically coherent panel, and they’re doing it on a pretty tight turnaround. Anything that can aid in the process of getting your paper onto a reviewer-created panel is, to quote Martha Stewart, a good thing.

Odds and Ends: The Fine Print

Above all, follow the instructions.

Some conferences make this easier than others. As I mentioned earlier, SCMS likes to use character count rather than word count, which is a deviation from many (often less-formal) conferences. Other conferences, such as ICA (International Communication Association) often want the whole paper, not just an abstract; the point being that, like citation formats, there’s no one way to submit a proposal. You just have to kind of roll with it.

If the conference has examples of successful proposals on their website, check them out and read them for broad patterns: how they’re structured, how citations are included (if they are), what the titles sound like, etc. All of the advice I’ve given in this lesson is true for me in my field(s), but humanities fields and conferences are not all created equally when it comes to accepted forms and formats. If you know people who have successfully proposed to a conference you’re sending a proposal to, ask if you can see what they wrote. There’s no shame in seeking guidance about this stuff.

Check your work. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t do it. Reread your proposal a few times – out loud is especially good – to catch those places where perhaps you revised it and forgot to get rid of some awkward part of the previous version, or where your word processing program took the liberty of correcting “discrete” to “discreet,” etc.

Keep it within the word limit, but not so far below it that you fail to give important information. If the proposal has a maximum of 300 words, don’t go over 300 words, but also try not to go below 250 or so. Each word allowed enables you to be that much clearer about what you’re proposing to talk about, and if you’re very far under the limit it can often signal that the proposal has not been well thought-out.

If a bibliography of at least X number of works is required, do not forget to include it. Generally speaking, the more established and bigger the conference is, the more likely you will have to fill in boxes for exactly such purposes (same is true of going over the word limit), and those usually won’t let you hit “submit” until the box is filled. Nonetheless, make sure you include what the conference organizers are asking for – failure to do so is often the first strike against a proposal when it’s in review.

If all of this sounds obvious, it absolutely is. And yet, having been on my share of proposal review committees, I can say with absolute certainty that there’s always someone who manages not to follow at least one of the directions, and that can be enough to put a reviewer on the fence about your work, particularly if they’re asked to keep to a strict ratio of acceptances to rejections (as often happens at the biggest conferences). The proposal is your first foot forward with a committee, so make sure it’s your best and most professional.

Next Up: Writing the Conference Paper