Write like the wind (of conference papers)

Well, I’m off to another conference later this week.  I’ve written before about things to do and avoid at conferences but realised those were mostly about attending.  Now comes the post about writing and presenting a paper.

There are plenty of tips available online about writing conference papers.  My advice parallels with what has already been said, but hopefully adds something new, though it is mostly from my point of view.

I spent most of last week writing this paper.  It doesn’t normally take me more than a day or two to actually write and edit a paper, but for some reason I was struggling with this one.  Maybe it was because I have been more focused on finishing this PhD and finding something for next year that I just couldn’t focus.  Maybe it’s been the fantastic weather, and all I really wanted to do was go outside and enjoy the sunshine.  Maybe I subconsciously just don’t want to go to this conference.  I don’t know, all I do know is that I was struggling.  But that can be okay, actually.  A paper written in a day may not actually be as well thought or coherent as one that took a week.  It may have the rushed or lazy feel to it (almost as if it were an undergraduate essay written the day before it’s due whilst hung over).

I think the reason I was struggling with this paper was that I was having trouble finding the proper narrative story for it.  Sure, I had my abstract to go from, and I’ve done work on similar work in PhD chapters and other conference papers, but I was working on a new idea.  I just couldn’t figure out what that new idea actually was.  I like to picture conference papers as little stories.  They’re basically self-contained units that don’t require further referencing or any previous knowledge.  That doesn’t mean they can’t be well researched and have a good theoretical and methodological framework, it just means your audience doesn’t necessarily have to be well-versed in the intricacies of Kantian philosophy (for example) to understand the paper.  I was struggling with how to fit all the requisite theories and research into a coherent narrative that was interesting.  I think I finally managed it, but it was tougher than it normally is.

After my first draft I wanted to make sure it actually made sense from a different perspective.  Having someone else read it, therefore, is essential.  Ideally someone who either isn’t that familiar with your work (and therefore your assumptions) or your advisor; or both.  My partner read this draft.  She has read some previous papers/chapters, but is not an academic.  Nor does she have the in-depth musical knowledge that I have at my fingertips (stored in my synapses?), so if she understood all the references then I knew I was in good shape.  Thankfully it required very little editing in that sense.  But having her read it was important because I’m not completely sure it would have made sense to outsiders otherwise.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

I created a PowerPoint for this paper, which I don’t always do.  Don’t feel obliged to make one if it doesn’t really add to the paper.  The main reason I did was because I can play some of those music clips that are probably familiar but add just a bit more depth.  I do have to be wary about this, though, as I don’t want to go over my allotted time.

Which means I need to practice it.  Not only reading the paper checking for errors and whatnot, but reading it out loud to get the cadence and pronunciation right.  Also using the PowerPoint so that I’m not fumbling around going back and forth through different slides. I’ve found it useful to write SLIDE or SONG into the paper, knowing I won’t say it but to switch to the next slide.  You could also use numbers or extra paragraph breaks or some other form of reference.  This practising will also help with keeping to time.  Something I have found I do is use my hands a lot.  Not necessarily for emphasis or anything so useful as that, more that I swing them around.  Knowing this can help me keep track of them. Some people know they speak faster or slower, mumble or have their hands shake.  All of that comes from practising, too.

Now, hopefully this conference will be as fun as the others I’ve been to, and as informative. I guess I’ll find out this week, won’t I?

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