Writing Academic Proposals: Conferences, Articles, and Books
An important part of the work completed in academia is sharing our scholarship with others. Such communication takes place when we present at scholarly conferences, publish in peer-reviewed journals, and publish in books. This OWL resource addresses the steps in writing for a variety of academic proposals.
For samples of conference proposals, article abstracts and proposals, and book proposals, click here.
Beginning the process
Make sure you read the call for papers carefully to consider the deadline and orient your topic of presentation around the buzzwords and themes listed in the document. You should take special note of the deadline and submit prior to that date, as late submissions leave a bad impression and suggest poor planning skills.
If you have previously spoken on or submitted a proposal on the same essay topic, you should carefully adjust it specifically for this conference or even completely rewrite the proposal based on your changing and evolving research.
The topic you are proposing should be one that you can cover easily within a time frame of approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. You should stick to the required word limit of the conference call, usually 250 to 300 words. The organizers have to read a large number of proposals, especially in the case of an international or interdisciplinary conference, and will appreciate your brevity.
Structure and components
A conference proposal will typically consist of an introduction to your topic, which should not amount to more than one-third of the length of your submission, followed by your thesis statement and a delineation of your approach to the problem.
You should then explain why your thesis is original and innovative as well as important and interesting to scholars who might be outside your specific area of research. As Kate Turabian states, “whether your role at a conference is to talk or only listen depends not just on the quality of your research, but on the significance of your question.” (Turabian, Kate L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago P, 2007. p. 128). This portion takes up approximately three to five lines, whereas the rest (approximately another third of the total length) focuses on the conclusion that you will arrive at in your essay and exemplary evidence.
Important considerations for the writing process
First and foremost, you need to consider your future audience carefully in order to determine both how specific your topic can be and how much background information you need to provide in your proposal. Larger conferences, such as regional MLA meetings or the ALA (American Literature Association) will require you to direct your remarks to an audience that might not conduct research on the same time period or literary field at all.
Along those lines, you might want to check whether you are basing your research on specific prior research and terminology that requires further explanation. As a rule, always phrase your proposal clearly and specifically, avoid over-the-top phrasing and jargon, but do not negate your own personal writing style in the process.
If you would like to add a quotation to your proposal, you are not required to provide a citation or footnote of the source, although it is generally preferred to mention the author’s name. Always put quotes in quotation marks and take care to limit yourself to at most one or two quotations in the entire proposal text. Furthermore, you should always proofread your proposal carefully and check whether you have integrated details, such as author’s name, the correct number of words, year of publication, etc. correctly.
If you are comparing and contrasting two different authors or subjects, you should clearly outline the process at which you arrive at your conclusion, even in a short proposal. The reader needs to realize the importance and legitimacy of comparing these two themes and get a sense of cohesion.
Types of conference papers and sessions
As a scholar, you may encounter the following presentation types; they cannot be sorted into either the humanities or the sciences. On a general note, however, humanities papers are usually read aloud at a conference, sometimes with the use of audiovisual equipment, and can look at fairly specific aspects of their research area. Social scientists tend to summarize their longer projects and works in order to introduce them to a larger audience and emphasize their usefulness and practical application.
Panel presentations are the most common form of presentation you will encounter in your graduate career. You will be one of three to four participants in a panel or session (the terminology varies depending on the organizers) and be given fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. This is often followed by a ten-minute question-and-answer session either immediately after your presentation or after all of the speakers are finished. It is up to the panel organizer to decide upon this framework. In the course of the question-and-answer session, you may also address and query the other panelists if you have questions yourself.
Roundtables feature an average of five to six speakers, each of whom gets the floor for approximately five to ten minutes to speak on their respective topics and/or subtopics. At times, papers from the speakers might be circulated in advance among the roundtable members or even prospective attendees.
Papers with respondents are structured around a speaker who gives an approximately thirty-minute paper and a respondent who contributes his own thoughts, objections, and further questions in the following fifteen minutes. Finally, the speaker gets that same amount of time to formulate his reply to the respondent.
Poster presentations are not very common in the humanities and ask participants to visually display their ideas as either an outline of findings, an essay of several pages length, or, preferably, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images.
Reasons proposals fail/common pitfalls
Depending on the conference, acceptance rates of proposals might range from about 10 percent to almost 100 hundred percent of submissions. Accordingly, you will receive some rejections to your submissions in the course of your career, which, in contrast to book proposals or fellowship applications, do not come with an explanation for the rejection.
There are common pitfalls that you might need to improve on for future proposals.
The proposal does not reflect your enthusiasm and persuasiveness, which usually goes hand in hand with hastily written, simply worded proposals. Generally, the better your research has been, the more familiar you are with the subject and the more smoothly your proposal will come together.
Similarly, proposing a topic that is too broad, can harm your chances of being accepted to a conference. Be sure to have a clear focus in your proposal. Usually, this can be avoided by more advanced research to determine what has already been done, especially if the proposal is judged by an important scholar in the field. Check the names of keynote speakers and other attendees of note to avoid repeating known information or not focusing your proposal.
Your paper might simply have lacked the clear language that proposals should contain. On this linguistic level, your proposal might have sounded repetitious, have had boring wording, or simply displayed carelessness and a lack of proofreading, all of which can be remedied by more revisions.
Submitting the Conference Proposal
Since the great majority of proposals are submitted via e-mail, make sure you follow e-mail etiquette guidelines, such as including a proper subject line, a short but professional body of text in the e-mail, preferably including a short paragraph on your scholarly background. The reader will not know your skills and qualifications and why you chose to submit to his panel or to a particular conference, so you might include a few sentences on any or all of those topics.
The actual proposal, unless otherwise required by the call for papers, should be a Word document that can be read by most computers (when in doubt, save the file as a .doc file instead of as a .docx). This is generally more pleasant to the eye in reading and printing, especially if the chair has to read a large number of proposals. You may also want to save and send the file in rich text format (rtf) or Portable Document Format (PDF) to ensure compatibility with different computer operating systems and platforms.
Write your proposal either double-spaced or with 1.5 spacing (to not exceed one page, for instance) and use a clear font and heading with your information and the conference title and date. Save and/or print a copy of your proposal in case it gets lost and check to see if the e-mail was sent (or cc it to your own folder.)
You will not need to state whether you need audiovisual equipment in the e-mail or in the proposal at this point unless this information is requested.
Presenting the Conference Paper
In presenting your paper, you should time your talk to fit your slot in the panel. It is very unprofessional if a speaker cannot finish, or if she talks at an incredible (and thereby incomprehensible) speed. Even more unprofessional is when the speaker does not stop when she is handed a sign or motioned to stop by the panel chair.
Since you will present your paper orally, you may repeat important points and say more about the structure of the essay than a written submission to a journal or a paper for your undergraduate or graduate course would require. It is generally advised to quickly summarize your important points in a bullet point listing at the end of your presentation or remind everyone of the two or three most essential arguments or findings.
In a similar vein, the thesis of your paper should be found on the first page of your essay, but at least no later than the top of the second page to give listeners a clear understanding of what is to follow. At this point, you may also overview or forecast your paper and tell listeners how you will move from one argument to the next.
You might also want to bring a bibliography to your presentation and know the main books and articles written about your subject well, as this will aid you in the question-and-answer session or if an audience member asks you to recommend a specific work that might relate to their research.
If you use a slide presentation, you may want to follow the guidelines presented in the OWL resource, Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation.
Journal abstracts are usually requested by scholarly journals and written after the original manuscript was composed. While a proposal can be quite long depending on the assignment and purpose, an abstract is generally kept brief (approximately 150-200 words), but includes some of the same elements as a proposal:
- A statement of the problem and objectives
- A summary of employed methods or your research approach the significance of the proposed topic should become clear as well
- A self-contained piece of writing that can be understood independently from the essay or project
As journal editors still follow traditional criteria of clear argumentation, your journal abstract should include a valid thesis in understandable language and follow lucid, persuasive prose. Your first consideration should go towards a well thought out revision of the article you intend to submit for publication.
Rather than writing for your dissertation committee or professors, you will need to prove thorough comprehension of primary and secondary materials, and that you understand the positive and negative implications of these pieces of evidence.
You should learn about the specific journal audience, or the interested reader in the general public; thus, you should provide clear explanations of key terms and keep digressions to a minimum, preferably limited to the footnotes in the manuscript.
The abstract should tell readers whether they want to look at your article in more detail when reading it in the journal. Only a few journals ask you to send merely an abstract without a complete manuscript, and they mainly advertise these calls on their websites and general calls for papers websites of the various fields. English majors, for instance, may find a listing of these on the University of Pennsylvania English Department website.
Regardless of field, journal abstract authors should explain the purpose of the work, methods used, the results and the conclusions that can be drawn. However, each field purports slightly different ways to structure the abstract. Hartley and Sykes (Cited in: Page, Gillian et al. Journal Publishing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1997. p. 316) have suggested that papers for the social sciences (and any other empirical work) should contain the following:
- Conclusions and comment
Most scientific journals require authors to submit such abstracts, whereas the social sciences and humanities journals do not always do so but are quickly catching up to the trend. It is generally advisable to write the abstract in the English language, as most papers in other languages, especially Asian nations, tend to publish an English abstract with common search engines, such as, the MLA site.
Selecting the journal
Rather than sending off your proposal to a random list of popular journals, you should conduct thorough research on the following aspects of a journal before writing the proposal. (Adapted from: Scodel, Ruth and Marilyn B. Skinner. “Publishing the Scholarly Article in Classical Studies: A Guide for New Members of the Profession.” 2004. http://www.apaclassics.org):
Check the policy statements of the journals and their tables of contents from recent issues to find out the exact scope of the journal and its specialization within the field.
Examine the journal's website or the MLA Bibliography of Periodicals for information on restrictions by the journal, as many of these only accept submissions by members of a particular association. Other journals limit the length of articles and you will have to decide as to whether you will shorten your article or submit it to another publication.
The journal's website will also provide you with information on the particular methodological approach preferred by the journal and the general audience to which it caters.
Furthermore, in an effort to increase your chances with the editorial board, you should look at their backgrounds and publications, unless the journal uses anonymous refereeing. You should aim to find sympathetic but rigorous referees, as a weak journal publication can turn out to be worse than no publications in a competitive job market.
You should also learn about the time from submission to decision. Usually, the best time for submitting is between September and November, as reviews will proceed more slowly during the summer months. If you suspect the journal already has some issues backlogged, you might want to contact the editor for further information, especially if time is a factor for you and the journal publishes few issues each year.
Consider both the reputation of the journal in the hierarchy of publications in your field as well as personal bias, such as, your mentors' ties and connections to journal editors, before submitting your proposal and article.
Submitting the Journal Abstract
Once you complete your abstract and manuscript, you might decide to reconsider your choice of target journal due to a slight change in focus. In that case, you might want to ask for suggestions from peers and mentors or address the journal editor directly. Virtually all editors will look at your abstract to make an initial judgment about whether it will fit the scope of their journal and might even be willing to skim your manuscript.
You will want to make sure that your manuscript and abstract are as error-free as possible, particularly in formatting issues such as page numbers, font size, alignment, and typographical errors. Journals no longer require three to five hard copies plus a disk copy in most cases, but are accepting submissions online rather than via postal mail. Pay particular attention to requests for blind submission and mask all references that would reveal your identity - this includes school references, geographic locations, and recognizable or unique organization names.
For example, to make an abstract anonymous, a researcher conducing a study at the Subaru plant here in Lafayette, Indiana, would have to use the following terminology: “Researchers used a case study approach to collect data on the impact of “lean production” techniques on line workers at a small automotive production plant in the Midwest.”
The editor's decision might be one of the following:
- Accepting the manuscript in its current form
- Accepting it pending the completion of particular revisions
- Revising and resubmitting
Immediate acceptance is very rare, while numbers two and three are the most common responses to submissions. Changes requested by an "accept pending revisions" are generally fewer and less substantial, generally only reviewed again by the editor, than those for a "revise and resubmit," in which case the manuscript is often sent back to the same reviewers. Unless you have a particular reason for not implementing one of those changes and are willing to explain to these in the letter to the editor, you should make each and every one of the suggested revisions.
While the requirements are very similar to those of conference proposals, proposals for a long article, chapter, or book ought to address a few other issues.
Since these proposals are of greater length, the publisher will require you to delve into greater detail as well—for instance, regarding the organization of the proposed book or article.
Publishers generally require a clear outline of the chapters you are proposing and an explication of their content, which can be several pages long in its entirety.
You will need to incorporate knowledge of relevant literature, use headings and sub-headings that you should not use in conference proposals. Be sure to know who wrote what about your topic and area of interest, even if you are proposing a less scholarly project.
Publishers prefer depth rather than width when it comes to your topic, so you should be as focused as possible and further outline your intended audience.
You should always include information regarding your proposed deadlines for the project and how you will execute this plan, especially in the sciences. Potential investors or publishers need to know that you have a clear and efficient plan to accomplish your proposed goals. Depending on the subject area, this information can also include a proposed budget, materials or machines required to execute this project, and information about its industrial application.
As John Boswell (cited in: Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal. Writers Digest Books, 2004. p. 1) explains, “today fully 90 percent of all nonfiction books sold to trade publishers are acquired on the basis of a proposal alone.” Therefore, editors and agents generally do not accept completed manuscripts for publication, as these “cannot (be) put into the usual channels for making a sale”, since they “lack answers to questions of marketing, competition, and production.” (Lyon, Elizabeth. Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write. Perigee Trade, 2002. pp. 6-7.)
In contrast to conference or, to a lesser degree, chapter proposals, a book proposal introduces your qualifications for writing it and compares your work to what others have done or failed to address in the past.
As a result, you should test the idea with your networks and, if possible, acquire other people’s proposals that discuss similar issues or have a similar format before submitting your proposal. Prior to your submission, it is recommended that you write at least part of the manuscript in addition to checking the competition and reading all about the topic.
The following is a list of questions to ask yourself before committing to a book project, but should in no way deter you from taking on a challenging project. (adapted from Lyon 27.) Depending on your field of study, some of these might be more relevant to you than others, but nonetheless useful to reiterate and pose to yourself.
- Do you have sufficient enthusiasm for a project that may span years?
- Will publication of your book satisfy your long-term career goals?
- Do you have enough material for such a long project and do you have the background knowledge and qualifications required for it?
- Is your book idea better than or different from other books on the subject? Does the idea spark enthusiasm not just in yourself but others in your field, friends, or prospective readers?
- Are you willing to acquire any lacking skills, such as, writing style, specific terminology andknowledge on that field for this project? Will it fit into your career and life at the time or will you not have the time to engage in such extensive research?
Essential elements of a book proposal
Your book proposal should include the following elements:
- Your proposal requires the consideration of the timing and potential for sale as well as its potential for subsidiary rights.
- It needs to include an outline of approximately one paragraph to one page of prose (Larsen 6) as well as one sample chapter to showcase the style and quality of your writing.
- You should also include the resources you need for the completion of the book and a biographical statement (“About the Author”).
- Your proposal must contain your credentials and expertise, preferably from previous publications on similar issues.
- A book proposal also provides you with the opportunity to include information such as a mission statement, a foreword by another authority, or special features—for instance, humor, anecdotes, illustrations, sidebars, etc.
- You must assess your ability to promote the book and know the market that you target in all its statistics.
The following proposal structure as outlined by Peter E. Dunn for thesis and fellowship proposals provides a useful guide to composing such a long proposal. (Dunn, Peter E. “Proposal Writing.” Center for Instructional Excellence, Purdue University, 2007.):
- Cover Page
- Statement of Problem
- Literature Review
- Identification of Problem
- Statement of Objectives
- Rationale and Significance
- Research Plan
- Methods and Timeline
- Literature Cited
Most proposals for manuscripts range from thirty to fifty pages and, apart from the subject hook, book information (length, title, selling handle), markets for your book, and the section about the author, all the other sections are optional. Always anticipate and answer as many questions by editors as possible, however.
In addition, estimate approximately one or two lines for each chapter page you estimate as part of the outline. Finally, include the best chapter possible to represent your book's focus and style. Until an agent or editor advises you to do otherwise, follow your book proposal exactly without including something that you might not want to be part of the book or improvise on possible expected recommendations.
Publishers expect to acquire the book's primary rights, so that they can sell it in an adapted or condensed form as well. Mentioning any subsidiary rights, such as translation opportunities, performance and merchandising rights, or first-serial rights, will add to the editor's interest in buying your book. It is enticing to publishers to mention your manuscript's potential to turn into a series of books, although they might still hesitate to buy it right away—at least until the first one has been a successful endeavor.
The sample chapter
Since editors generally expect to see about one-tenth of a book, your sample chapter's length should reflect that in these building blocks of your book. The chapter should reflect your excitement and the freshness of the idea as well as surprise editors, but do not submit part of one or more chapters. Always send a chapter unless your credentials are impeccable due to prior publications on the subject. Do not repeat information in the sample chapter that will be covered by preceding or following ones, as the outline should be designed in such a way as to enable editors to understand the context already.
How to make your proposal stand out
Depending on the subject of your book, it is advisable to include illustrations that exemplify your vision of the book and can be included in the sample chapter. While these can make the book more expensive, it also increases the salability of the project. Further, you might consider including outstanding samples of your published work, such as clips from periodicals, if they are well-respected in the field. Thirdly, cover art can give your potential publisher a feel for your book and its marketability, especially if your topic is creative or related to the arts.
Also, a professional formatting of your materials will give you an edge over more sloppy proposals. Also, proofread the materials carefully, use consistent and carefully organized fonts, spacing, etc., and submit your proposal without staples, but rather submit it in a neat portfolio that allows easy access and reassembling. Finally, you should try to surprise editors and attract their attention. Your hook, however, should be imaginative but inexpensive (you do not want to bribe them, after all). Make sure your hook draws the editors to your book proposal immediately (Adapted from Larsen 154-60).
Sample Academic Proposals
Select the Sample Academic Proposals PDF in the Media box above to download this file and read examples of proposals for conferences, journals, and book chapters.
Submitting an Undergraduate Journal Article
This presentation is designed to introduce students to academic journal writing. Specifically, this presentation was designed for the Journal of Purdue Undergraduate Research; it may be useful for anyone considering submitting to an undergraduate research journal.