ROAD TO SAVANNAH, PART 1: Abstract Writing for Newbies

By Tara Bursey

Last year, I went to Los Angeles for the TSA Symposium to present some research with some colleagues and had a blast. In four short days, I consumed countless textile exhibitions in world-class institutions, met other young professionals doing inspiring work, took in amazing public art, star-gazed in Beverly Hills and gawked at majestic art deco architecture and dazzling mid-century neon signs. I also learned about countless topics, from teaching textiles in the Hudson Valley to activism through embroidery in South Africa. In retrospect, I’m glad that my lack of experience in a conference setting (I come from a grassroots, community-oriented background as opposed to an academic one) didn’t keep me from taking a stab at an abstract that described a long-term project my collective was working on that we were really excited about and were keen to share.

Last minute preparations the day before our session, September 11, 2014.

Last minute preparations the day before our session, September 11, 2014. Photo: Jen Anisef


Are you a conference newbie, but you have an area of expertise to share, a constellation of ideas to explore and a surplus of passion for textiles? Don’t let your inexperience hold you back from submitting an abstract for the TSA’s next Symposium– a rare opportunity to learn, meet other textile-focused professionals from the worlds of museums, art and education, and strut your stuff in an inspiring new city.

Here are some handy tips for the younger set who are new to writing abstracts (that may also refresh the more seasoned among those reading this post):

Think carefully about the theme of the Symposium; what unique perspective can you offer the discussion?

The 2016 TSA Symposium theme is Crosscurrents: Land, Labor and the Port. It will be obvious to you if your area of interest is related to this theme. If it initially seems like there is no connection between your topic and next year’s theme, dig a little deeper. Challenge yourself to uncover one small thread that links your topic to the theme, and mine this connection to renew your perspective and further your research in the coming months.

Bone up on other people‘s abstracts!

Abstracts from previous TSA Symposia can be found online here: This will give you an idea of other people’s structure and style of writing abstracts. You will also be interested to learn the incredible range of textile-related topics covered at a single symposium!

Write your abstract well, but avoid convoluted language.

A good abstract doesn’t have to teem with lofty language and jargon– save this for the paper you present, if you are so inclined. A good abstract will describe your paper or project in clear and concise language so that the jury can get a firm grasp of it’s content. Your goal should be to convey that your research will interest conference-goers. An effective abstract doesn’t have to be brilliant, but it should be unique, compelling and show a sense of purpose and curiosity.

Avoid future tense if you can help it – and, if you must, specify clearly what you will do and when.

Overusing future tense can make your abstract sound a bit wishy-washy, like you are making promises that you may or may not keep. Avoid describing what you plan to or may do; describe what you will do, have done and are doing currently. Give evidence of a research timeline in your abstract, if this makes sense.

Keep the following five questions in mind when writing the first draft of your abstract as a basic guide– these should all be addressed in your abstract:

What is the purpose of the project?

What is the research problem or question that motivates your work?

What are the methods you will use to address the problem or question (anthropological fieldwork? interviews? hands-on collaborative work in the community)?

What are the conclusions you’ve reached or, if the research is in progress, what do the preliminary results of the investigation suggest?

What is the overall significance of your project? Why are the results useful? What is new and exciting about the research you will be conducting, or your perspective?

Explain your research, and also give an explanation of what you intend to include in the presentation.

This will give the jury an idea of how your presentation will unfold. Will you be showing a series of film clips? Will the presentation focus on comparisons of the work of two textile-based installation artists using photo-documentation? It might be worth saying so.



From the exhibition Yards of Style, African-Print Cloths of Ghana at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Photo: Jen Anisef


Start early. Get a trusted colleague, collaborator, or mentor to read your first draft and give their perspective.

They might be able to help you identify blind spots in your abstract, and help you with proofreading, grammar, cohesion and paring your abstract down to the bare essentials.

Good luck!