Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Decent proposal

Writing a paper proposal for a major conference is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of my academic career.  I wrote one last week, and have another one in progress for this week.  They go slowly -- a few words at a time, long pauses between sentences, with frequent breaks to study the language of the call for papers and stare into space.

Why do I have such trouble writing these proposals?  I think it's because they are invitations to rejection.  Work hard putting together a solid argument, a careful synopsis of research done, a close fit to the topics specified in the CFP, and whaddya get?  A form e-mail regretting to inform you that your submission could not be included in the program.

Surely articles submitted to scholarly journals are worse stressors, you might think.  There you must complete the entire paper before submitting it, whereas with most conferences the decision is based on an one-page abstract or a thousand-word description.  But here's the problem.  Writing the paper is its own reward, to some degree at least.  Rejected by one journal, you can at least reformat and submit to another one.  And even the most esteemed scholars list unpublished papers on their CVs, a testament to how difficult the publishing process is and how valuable even uncirculated work can be.  Nobody lists papers that never got written because the abstracts were rejected by a conference.  And the ideas that might have been developed in those papers might never get off the ground.

But the worst part of writing paper proposals is that in the end, it's so little work for so much potential downside.  After submitting an abstract, I spend the next few weeks becoming more and more convinced that the paper is acceptable -- in fact, that it's unlikely to be rejected.  They'd be fools to turn it down, I wind up thinking!  And then, more often than not, they do.

The deadline is approaching.  The word count is inching forward.  Time to put myself back on the chopping block -- it's the only way to get on the conference program, although it often seems like the complete reverse.

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