How to Write a Paper Proposal

Presenting papers at conferences is a hallmark of the academic life.  The experience can be fun, informative, terrifying, edifying, or all of the above. Unless you are invited by a specific group to present, your entrance into the world of conference presentations will ultimately be the paper proposal. The problem is that proposals can be difficult to compose without guidance. This post is meant to provide some guidance in the discipline of crafting a paper proposal. You will likely need to tailor some of my advice to fit your individual needs, but I hope these suggestions will be helpful nonetheless.

Content & Structure

1) Pose the problem or idea from the outset. Do not try to build suspense or be poetic. Get to the point in the first couple of sentences. At the beginning of a good proposal, you need to make it clear that there is a hole in scholarship that your paper will fill (or attempt to fill). Quotations from other scholars can sometimes be helpful in this task. Find someone who embodies the problem that you’re addressing, and use them to illustrate the problem.

2) State that no one has previously addressed the problem, or at least that they have not done so in the way that you are now attempting to do. This is a short but necessary component of your proposal. You need to convince your reader at the outset that what you’re about to do in this paper has not been done before, that you’re doing something unique and not just toeing the party line.

3) State your intention on solving (or at least bringing light to) the problem. This is the place where you should insert the words, “This paper does X” or “This paper will show X.” Regardless of whether or not you like Star Wars, it is a good idea to follow the advice of Yoda here: “do or do not…there is no try.” This is the place in your proposal where you need to be bold and assert that you’re doing something new, provocative, and cutting edge. Even if your paper will not drastically change the landscape of scholarship, you need to present it as if it will.

4) Make your reader aware that you’re familiar with the terrain that you’ll be discussing in your paper. Mention a few names and a few books, even if only in passing. Don’t make quotations a large part of your abstract. A few are fine, but if you’re going to draw attention to something that someone said, do it by means of your own summary.

Style & Formatting

1) Use the same font for everything in your abstract. This is actually a good formatting rule for any paper that you’ll write, and it always surprises me to see people use one font for the title, another for their name, etc. USE ONE FONT.

2) Avoid excessive italics. This is more of a suggestion than a rule, but I think laying off the italics makes for a cleaner looking page in general. Of course, you’ll need to italicize books and whatnot, but don’t lean on italics to provide emphasis to your words.

3) Longer words don’t make you look smarter. Please entertain a short rant. Some people habitually employ the word “utilize” over and above “use.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this, I suppose, but the motive behind it is to replace a commonplace word with one that is a bit “sexier.” True, long words are sometimes necessary (especially in academia where we thrive on creating them), but you should avoid the impulse to go through your proposal and “upgrade” your vocabulary when you’re done writing. Foreign words and titles are the exception to this rule — if you can put something in Latin, Greek, French, etc., this DOES make you look smarter.

4) Keep your sentences short and concise. I love a good compound sentence as much as the next guy, but in a proposal you need to be blunt and to the point. Your reviewer will likely spend less than one minute reading your proposal. If they encounter a long sentence that requires re-reading, they will probably just put yours down and move on to the next one. With this in mind, keep your prose as simple and straight forward as possible — this is not the place to impress by means of your verbosity — this is a place to convey clarity and your ability to summarize.

Editing/Proofreading

1) DO edit. Proposals are short, and deceptively so. Read through your proposal a few times, and send it to your colleagues to read through as well. If there is a glaring typo in the body (or the title, God forbid), your reader will notice and will likely not be pleased.

2) DO observe the word limit. True, the person reading your proposal will likely not have the “word count” feature at their fingertips, but they will know if your proposal is longer than the others on their desk. Don’t worry about the word limit when writing the proposal, but in the editing process go through and streamline your prose. Follow Thomas Jefferson’s famous quip, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

Those are my points of advice for writing a successful paper proposal. If you have others that I’ve overlooked, please share them!

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