A common way to start a new project is to decide to give a conference paper. You’ll have a deadline to get some of your thoughts on paper. You’ll get some feedback from others at the conference. You might even get to talk to some people in depth over lunch about it.
You just need a short abstract for the proposal. How hard can that be?
An abstract is like maple syrup
If you’ve only allowed yourself an hour or so to write the abstract and send it off, you are going to be really frustrated.
It takes 30-40 litres of sap to make 1 litre of maple syrup. That means the folks at Fulton’s need about 10 litres of sap to get that one 250 ml jar of syrup. That sap gets collected in a couple of weeks in the spring, when the weather conditions are just right. They need to set themselves up for that back in November.
You can learn more about how maple syrup is produced here. This producer is just up the road from where I live.
An abstract is like that for your writing. You need to boil down your larger argument into it’s essence.
The abstract is not the first step
Proposing a conference paper as a way to give yourself a deadline to start something is a really good strategy. I highly recommend it.
However, you need to consider the deadline for the proposal/abstract as your first external deadline in the longer process. (The second one will be the conference itself. Or the deadline for submitting full papers in advance of the conference.)
Before you can write the abstract, you need to think through the project in some detail. Think of it like the Fulton’s bush crew going out to lay line in November so they can produce maple syrup in March. There is a lot of work that has to happen before you can even collect the sap/words that you are going to boil down.
You may not even know what the full project looks like now.
That’s okay. If you use something like Scrivener, set up the project so you have somewhere to put what are probably pretty random notes and to collect some of the research, even if you haven’t read it yet.
Go for long walks, taking something you can use to record speech with you. Think about the project and record your thoughts for later transcription (either using voice-to-text software, or manually).
Sit down with a trusted friend or colleague to talk through your ideas and start to put them into some kind of order.
Do whatever you need to do to get a clearer sense of the project itself, and the specific piece of it you will present at the conference.
Then write the abstract.
At this point, writing the abstract will be much less frustrating.
Your accomplishment is not just “wrote 150 words”. Those 150 words are like my small bottle of maple syrup. Give yourself credit for all the work that went in to make writing those 150 words possible.
In addition to an abstract you have a clearer sense of the project, the beginnings of a structure, some of the research materials you need to move it forward, and so on.
Writing summaries and abstracts in which I talk about writing an abstract after you’ve written the full article/book.
How to write a conference abstract: a five-part plan for pitching your research at almost anything Catherine Baker takes you through a basic structure that works even if you aren’t quite sure what this thing will be yet.
Thanks to participants in A Meeting With Your Writing for sharing what you thought were your small accomplishments in a way that made it clear to all of us what a big writing milestone an abstract is.