One of the primary reasons academicians do research is to share information with others and broaden body of knowledge in a specific discipline. Sharing can occur in several different ways. Sharing is done frequently through conference presentations, published papers in peer-reviewed journals, and publishing the results on one’s research as a book. This resource covers the basic steps for writing a variety of academic proposals.

Conference proposals

Beginning the Process

Once your research has been accepted for a conference presentation carefully read the call for papers to verify the deadlines and to align your topic of presentation around one of the themes or keywords listed in the document. Plan to submit your presentation early, prior to the deadline. This generally means sticking to a tight schedule. If you submit your work late your peers will think you are a poor planner and it creates a bad impression from the start. This is something you want to avoid.

If you have submitted a proposal or spoken about the same essay topic to another group you should carefully adapt it for your new audience or consider rewriting it if your research has changed your position or major source information has been added or deleted as a result of your ongoing study. Normally, you should be able to cover your presentation proposal within a time frame of fifteen to twenty minutes. It is important to stick to the required word limit of the conference call. Most conferences require between 250 to 300 words. Clarity and brevity are very important because the conference organizers have to read a large number of proposals.

Structure and components

When you write a conference proposal it will usually consist of an introduction to your topic, your thesis statement and a delineation of your approach to the problem.
Explain why your thesis important and interesting to researchers and scholars in and beyond your specific discipline. Identify what makes your research original and innovative. 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 section should be between three and five lines. The remainder (approximately another third of the total length) should focus on the conclusion that you will draw in your essay and the evidence that supports your conclusion.

Important Considerations for the Writing Process

The first thing to consider when writing a proposal is your future audience. Your audience will determine how specific your topic can be and the amount of background information you need to provide in your proposal. If you present at a larger conference, such as regional MLA meetings or the ALA (American Literature Association) they will require you to address your remarks to a very broad audience that may not work in your discipline or time era.
Knowing your audience is also important in terms of deciding how much explanatory information and definitions you need to include in your presentation. You should always use detail and clearly phrase your proposal. Do not use jargon, but do retain your own personal writing style.

If you use quotes in your proposal, footnotes and citations are not required although it is good practice to mention the author’s name. Always put quotes in quotation marks and limit yourself to one or two quotations for the entire text of the proposal. Make certain you proofread your proposal carefully and check that you have integrated details correctly such as author’s name, the correct number of words, year of publication, etc.
If your proposal compares and contrasts two different authors or subjects, you should outline the process by which you arrive at your conclusion. This includes short proposals. The reader needs to understand the legitimacy and the importance of comparing these two themes in order to get a sense of how it all fits together.

Types of conference papers and sessions

Papers written about the Humanities are normally read out loud at conferences. It is also common for these presentations to include the use of audiovisual equipment. Social scientists usually summarize their work in order to introduce their research to a larger audience and emphasize the usefulness and practical application of their research within and beyond the discipline itself.

You may encounter the following presentation types:

Panel presentations

This is the most common presentation form you will encounter at the graduate and post graduate levels. Panels work in the following way: You, the presenter, will be one of three to four participants in a panel. Normally you will receive fifteen to twenty minutes to present your paper. Once the paper is presented there is normally a ten-minute question-and-answer session. The question and answer session can follow your presentation directly or occur after all papers have been presented. The panel organizer decides the framework for the panel session. During the question-and-answer session, you can ask questions of the other panelists if you have questions about their work.


Roundtables generally include five to six speakers. Each presenter gets five to ten minutes to speak about his or her respective topics or subtopics. Sometimes papers are distributed among roundtable members prior from the speakers might be circulated in advance of the roundtable among roundtable members and prospective attendees.

Papers with Respondents

This type of proposal revolves around a speaker who gives a thirty-minute presentation and a second participant, called the responder, who provides his own thoughts, objections, and questions following the presentation. Normally the respondent has 15 minutes. This is followed by another 15 minute session in which the presenter formulates his or her reply to the respondent.

Poster Presentations

This is visual presentation. Participants visually display their ideas. The display can be an outline of findings, an essay (normally several pages), or, charts, graphs, artwork, or photographic images. Images are preferred to any type of essay display.

Reasons Proposals Fail/Common Pitfalls

Acceptance rates for proposals range between 10 percent to almost 100 hundred percent of submissions. It is natural to receive rejections to your submissions during your career. You should be aware that rejections do not come with reasons.

Here are some common pitfalls that may lead to the rejection of your proposal. Knowing these pitfalls will allow you to improve them.

  • The proposal fails to reflect enthusiasm and persuasiveness. This is quite normal when the proposal is written quickly and with simplistic language. The better your research, the more familiar you are with the subject. Familiarity and depth of research generally make one more excited and secure in their position. This leads to enthusiastic, persuasive writing that comes together more smoothly and naturally.
  • When you propose a topic that is too broad, it can negatively affect your chances of being accepted to a conference. Keep a clear focus in your proposal. You can avoid this problem by doing more advanced research to determine what has already been done. This is really important when another important scholar in the field is judging the proposal. Always remember to check the names of keynote speakers and other attendees so you do not repeat known information. Stay focused on your own proposal.
  • Your paper lacks clear language. Check your proposal for sounded repetitions, boring wording, or carelessness errors. Always proofread your proposals thoroughly numerous times and revise it as necessary so that the language, grammar and spelling is accurate and clear.

Submitting the Conference Proposal

These days most proposals are submitted via e-mail. It is important to follow e-mail etiquette guidelines. This includes a proper subject line, a short but professional body of text in the e-mail, and a short paragraph detailing your scholarly background. The reader will not know your skills and qualifications or why you chose to submit to a specific panel or to a particular conference, It is appropriate to include a few sentences about any or all of those issues.

Unless the call for papers includes a special requirement, you should always submit your proposal as a Word document that can be read by most computers. If you are uncertain about what file type to use you should save the file as a .doc file instead of as a .docx. This is generally the best and most user-friendly format for reading and printing. It is also a good idea to save and send the file in rich text format (rtf) or Portable Document Format (PDF) to ensure your file is compatible with different computer operating systems and platforms.

The proposal should be either double-spaced or with 1.5 spacing so that you do not exceed a length of one page. Use a clear, clean font for the heading with your information and the conference title and date. Save or print a copy of your proposal in case it gets lost and verify the e-mail was sent. Copying yourself is a good way to see the message was sent and the attachment went through.
Unless specifically requested, you do not need to say whether you need audiovisual equipment in the e-mail.

Presenting the Conference Paper

When it is time to present your proposal you should make certain your talk fits into the time slot allotted you on the panel. It is considered unprofessional if a speaker cannot complete the presentation within the allotted time or fails to stop speaking he or she is given a sign to stop by the panel chair.

When you present your paper orally, you are allowed to repeat important points and tell a little more about the structure of the essay than you can when you do a written submission to a journal or a paper for your undergraduate or graduate course. It is good form to summarize important points in a bulleted list at the end of your presentation or, to orally remind everyone of the two or three most essential arguments or findings.

The thesis of your paper should be part of the first page of your essay, or at the top of the second page. This ensures listeners have a clear understanding of what information will follow. You may provide overview or forecast of your paper at this point and explain how you will move from one argument to the next for your listeners.
It is a good idea to bring a bibliography to your presentation. Make sure you know the main books and articles written about your subject well. This knowledge will help you during the question-and-answer session or, if an audience member asks you for a source recommendation that might help with their own research.

Journal Abstracts

Scholarly journals often request a journal abstracts. Abstracts are written after the original manuscript is composed. Proposals can be quite lengthy while an abstract is generally brief consisting of approximately 150-200 words. Abstracts include some of the same elements that a proposal does:

  • An opening statement describing the problem and the objectives
  • A summary of the research methods or, your research approach. This should make clear the significance of the proposed topic.
  • The abstract should be a piece of writing that can be understood independently from the essay or project

Journal editors still adhere to the traditional criteria of clear argumentation. The journal abstract should include a valid thesis that uses understandable language and follows clear, logical, persuasive prose. When writing an abstract the first consideration should be given to doing a brief, well-thought out revision of the article you intend to submit for publication.

In an abstract, you need to demonstrate a thorough understanding of primary and secondary materials, and that you understand the positive and negative implications of each piece of evidence.

As with any other presentation you need to learn about the specific journal audience, or interested readers in the general public. For this reason, you should always provide clear explanations of your key terms.
The abstract should help readers decide whether they want to look at your article in more detail when reading it in the journal. There are a few journals ask you to send only an abstract but most want an abstract and a complete manuscript.

All journal abstract authors, regardless of their field or discipline, should explain the purpose of their work, the research methods used, the results, and the conclusions that can be drawnDifferent disciplines have 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:

  1. Background
  2. Aims
  3. Method
  4. Results
  5. 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.

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

After you complete the abstract and manuscript, you may decide to reconsider your journal choice because your focus has changed somewhat. If that happens, it is useful to ask for suggestions from peers, mentors and the journal editor. Almost all editors check your abstract to make a judgment about whether or not it will fit the scope of their journal so they may even suggest an alternative journal that better fits with the focus of your paper.
Make certain that your manuscript and abstract are as error-free as possible. Double check formatting such as page numbers, font size, alignment, and typographical errors. Journals now accept online submission. It is no longer necessary to submit three to five hard copies and a disk copy. Pay close attention to requests for blind submissions. Make sure you mask all references that might expose your identity such as references, geographic locations, and recognizable or unique organizational names.

For example, to make an abstract anonymous, a researcher conducting a study at the GM plant in Detroit, Michigan would 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 might decide to do one of the following based on the blind submission:

  • Accept the manuscript in its current form
  • Accept the manuscript pending completion of particular revisions
  • Request revisions and a resubmittal
  • Reject the manuscript

It is quite rare for a manuscript to be accepted immediately. It is more common for manuscripts to be accepted pending completion of particular revisions. It is also common for the editor to request revisions and a resubmittal, in which case the manuscript is often sent back to the same reviewers. You should make each and every one of the suggested revisions unless you have a clear and compelling reason for not implementing one of those changes. If that is the case you must be prepared to explain your reasons in the letter to the editor.

Book Proposals

General Considerations

Book proposals are of significantly greater length than journal, panel or conference proposals. You will be required to write in much greater detail regarding the organization of the proposed book or article.
Publishers require a clear outline of the chapters you are proposing as well as expounding on their content. The outline can account for several pages.

For a book proposal you need to include knowledge about relevant literature, and use headings and sub-headings that you do not use in writing conference proposals. It is crucial to know who wrote what about your topic and area of interest. It does not matter if you are proposing a less scholarly project you still need to know about relevant literature.

Publishers prefer a depth of knowledge and expertise rather than a broad range of knowledge so you should be as focused as possible and be clear about who your intended audience is.

It is essential to include information regarding all of your proposed deadlines for the project and how you will execute your plan to meet the milestones and deadlines- especially in the sciences. Potential investors or publishers need to know that you have a clear, efficient, achievable plan to accomplish your proposed goals. Plan information can also include a proposed budget, materials or machines required to execute this project, and information about its industrial application depending on the project.

Pre-writing strategies

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.)

Unlike chapter and conference proposals, book proposals introduce your qualifications for writing. It is also used to compare your work to what others have done or not addressed in the past.
This means it is a good idea to test your idea with your networks and, if possible, read other people’s proposals that discuss similar issues before you submit your proposal. Prior to submitting your proposal it is a good idea to you write at least part of the manuscript in addition to checking out the competition and reading about your topic or closely related topics.

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.

1. Do you have sufficient enthusiasm for a project that may span years?
2. Will publication of your book satisfy your long-term career goals?
3. Do you have enough material for such a long project and do you have the background knowledge and qualifications required for it?
4. 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?
5. Are you willing to acquire any lacking skills, such as, writing style, specific terminology and knowledge 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 book proposals for manuscripts run between thirty and fifty pages. Required sections of the proposal include the subject hook, book information such as the length, title, and selling proposition, target markets for the book, and an about the author section. You may include any other optional sections you believe will help answer questions the editor may have. This means you need to think ahead and anticipate what questions are likely to arise.

In general you count on one or two lines for each chapter page you estimate that will be part of the outline. Make sure you include the best chapter possible in your proposal to show off your book’s focus and style. Stick to your book proposal exactly. Do not without include anything you do not want to be part of the book, and do not improvise on possible expected recommendations. Wait to make any changes until the editor specifically requests them.

Publishers are out to acquire the book’s primary rights. Having the primary rights allows them to sell your book n an adapted or condensed form. You may want to bring up subsidiary rights, including translation opportunities, performance and merchandising rights, or first-serial rights. Offering subsidiary rights will make the editor more interested in buying your book. You might also talk about your book’s potential to be expanded into a book series. This may make your proposal even more enticing to publishers even if they still hesitate to buy it right away or until the first one has proven successful.

The sample chapter

In general, will expect to see about one-tenth of your book, therefore the length of your sample chapter should reflect that. The chapter should showcase your excitement and innovation or the freshness of your idea. This sample chapter should also surprise editors. It is important to send one chapter and not bits and pieces from several chapters. Do not repeat information in the sample chapter that you cover in earlier or later chapters. The design of the outline should 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).

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