Writing for a conference audience is hard. You would think, for all the conference papers I have written over the years (the count is 6, if you include the forthcoming one), that this would get easier but It isn’t, yet.
The problem, or so it seems to me at the moment, is that you aren’t writing for a reader, you are writing for a listener and that means your structure and organization can’t follow the patterns you typically use in other writing.
I don’t remember where I read this, but I usually work on the assumption that anyone in my audience will, under ideal conditions, remember one or two important points from my paper and that they will more likely remember content from the first and last 2 or 3 minutes of the presentation. That means that your most important content must appear within the first 250 words and should re-appear in the last 250.* I pick 250 since the rule of thumb is that it takes about 2 minutes to read one page, double spaced, if you don’t rush. And please, don’t rush.
The implications for my paper is that my introduction has been re-written about 5 times and I’m starting to feel like I’m writing a funding application instead of a low-key conference paper for early career academics and graduate students.
There is a great deal of satisfaction in successfully delivering a conference paper. I don’t like giving papers, and I don’t like writing them (for the above named reasons) but I do like the question period and then I get a little line on the CV without having to jump through too many hoops for referees. I have one conference abstract still in the cue for a July conference and I plan on submitting two more abstracts in January and April. I do this so freely, and then completely forget that I have to write the buggers and I will be stuck, like I am now, slapping around my introduction, and generally regretting having made the commitment in the first place.
Well, back to work on those first 250 words.
* This may be part of a chapter on conference papers in Robert L. Peters, Getting What You Came for: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a PhD. Rev. ed. (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1997), or Beth Luey, Handbook for Academic Authors. 5th ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), I really don’t know and I can’t check because all my lovely books are so far, far away. Sigh.