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Slash! Chop! Fold! Spindle! Mutilate!

I just spent an interesting forty minutes getting a paper ready for conference presentation. Over the course of these forty minutes, I managed to cut between one third and one half of the paper's content, while still keeping the overall point and flavor intact. It's really amazing how much of writing is salad dressing -- oil and flavoring designed to improve the flow and provide a little style, but not absolutely necessary, when you come right down to it.

The paper began life as a seminar paper, ostensibly for a history class, but ending up as more of a music history paper. Because I really liked the ideas I was working with, I submitted an abstract of this paper to a conference to be held here in Chicago at the end of February. The paper had to be written anyway, since it was for a class, so I figured submitting for this conference wouldn't require any extra effort on my part. The committee accepted the paper, happy happy joy joy. Then they told me I'd have twenty minutes to present it, which works out to about ten pages of written material.


The version that I turned in to my history professor, the version that got graded, the version that I based my abstract on, is just over eighteen pages long, and would take about thirty-five to forty minutes to present. Somehow, I had to find eight pages' worth of material to cut from what was already a fairly tightly structured paper. Amazingly enough, I did it. By hook and by crook, the thing is now ten pages long. And it still makes sense.

I am now grateful for two things in life: The first is that there will be an opportunity for people to ask questions after the presentation, during which I can elaborate on things that I had to cut. And the second is that there will be an official dry run of everyone from the U of C who's presenting so that professors and other students can listen and make comments. This is a very good thing, because this history paper has been accepted to a music conference without any music person ever laying eyes on it.

Ain't academia weird?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 1st, 2007 08:57 am (UTC)
Congrats! I've always had trouble doing that... I suppose I'm terribly long-winded. :-p
Feb. 1st, 2007 12:23 pm (UTC)
I thought I was going to have much more trouble than I did. The weirdest thing was letting go of two whole sections that, while nice to have around, ultimately did not absolutely need to be there.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 1st, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
Right now, the paper still kind of reads like an abridgement, which it is. But I think I've abridged it such that you still get the point of the longer version. The long version still seems like the more elegant one, though. It'll be interesting to see how the abridgement goes over at the dry run.
Feb. 1st, 2007 11:33 am (UTC)
I was so relieved when I got to the place where you said there'd be a dry run. We do that for our grad students too, and it's very helpful.

Warning: I'm about to go into full lecture mode and deliver a rant I lay on my students about twice a year.

First, there's no real way to tell how long the thing will be until you deliver it out loud. And that time limit is real. If you go over, you're cutting into someone else's time.

Second, is it customary to actually read the paper rather than deliver a presentation? Some people at our conferences do read the paper, but we make all our students use Power Point and notes, and they get rave reviews. A paper is (not surprisingly) in written language, which is measurably different than spoken language -- longer sentences, more complex vocabulary, etc. It's very hard for an audience to take it in by ear.

OK. I seem to be foaming at the mouth. It's probably time to take my meds and lie down.

It's great that you're doing this, FP. Have a good time.
Feb. 1st, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)
The dry run did sound like a fantastic idea, and I'm glad they're doing it. There's enough time between it and the conference to make more tweaks if need be. And you bet I'll stick to that time limit. I don't want to hear me yap for more than twenty minutes, and I don't think anyone else does, either. I did some unofficial practice runs of the last conference paper I did, and I think they did help.

The culture here does tend toward reading from a prepared text rather than PowerPoint and notes, especially for younger people. If you're an Established Hotshot (like my advisor), you can use long, extensive notes. However, of the many out-of-class lectures I've seen, the ones that went down best with the U of C music nerdlings were the ones read from a prepared text.

I tend to shy away from overly long sentences and fifty-cent words in my academic writing anyway, so it's not too difficult to turn that into a spoken presentation. A lot of it seems to be in the delivery.
Feb. 1st, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
Go you! The dry run is a good thing, I think. I´ve become so mentally lazy with the years that I hate doing it, and at this point I am always shorter than the time allowed, but it is a question, as daw says of getting the knack of the presentation -exactly the focal points you want people to get, or to wonder about or to ask about- and if thre is indeed time for questions then it is gonna be even greater.

Academia is not weirder than RL, if it serves of any comforot tou you..
Feb. 1st, 2007 07:50 pm (UTC)
What I'm hoping is that, by cutting out the section about the cultural reaction to the event I'm describing, someone will notice the hole, and, during the Q&A, ask something like, "But . . . but . . . wasn't there a reaction? Didn't anyone do something about this situation?"

Then I will be able to say, "Yes, that's a good question, and there was a reaction, and let me describe it for you. . . " and get to sneak some of the cut material back in that way.
Feb. 2nd, 2007 12:00 am (UTC)
You're giving me flashbacks. I just completed a project which required 14 write-ups. Each write-up had to be exactly one page, Courier 10, regardless of the amount of content that had to be conveyed.

Feb. 2nd, 2007 04:14 am (UTC)
Eyecross, indeed. That sounds like it would have been almost haiku-like in its brevity and evocativeness.
Feb. 2nd, 2007 04:29 am (UTC)
Congratulations on your careful pruning of text. I'm sure it will all go very well. I kind of wish I could be there, especially for the Q&A.
Feb. 2nd, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
Tonight, I went and pruned a copy of the abstract down to 200 words, and I was all poised to send it off to another conference. Then I realized that I had a gamelan performance during the weekend of the conference, so it wouldn't have been any use anyway. But now I have a short version of the abstract, too, so that's good.
Feb. 3rd, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
Another conference! Awesome, FP! I do miss the conferences. I hope you enjoy it.

(And the editing--amzing isn't it. It always fascinates me to look at a first draft and a last draft of anything and look at the changes. It is always so pleasing to see how much the writing improved).
Feb. 3rd, 2007 04:33 pm (UTC)
This conference is a rotating one, hosted in turn by Northwestern, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and us. We're hosting this year, so I felt that I had to at least submit an abstract. You know, do one for the team. That it got accepted was just my good luck. Now I have something to do at the conference besides sitting around listening to other papers.

I still prefer the longer version of the paper, but alas, such is life.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )