How To Write An Abstract or Paper Proposal

So, I've ended up taking a month long hiatus that was never intended but somehow, things just worked out that way. I hope to be back in the swing of things posting again now and I'm grateful to Brian Fulthorp for giving me the impetus to do that. He asked if I'd share some thoughts on writing an abstract / paper proposal, so, what follows is exactly that. Let me know your thoughts!


Believe it or not, writing an abstract for a paper proposal can be an intimidating thing. The trick is to basically encapsulate the thrust of your paper in just a few, catchy sentences; you want to write something that will pique the interests of readers…even if they’re not particularly interested in your area of study. By no means am I yet an expert at doing this. In fact, I’ve only presented about 6 or 7 papers at conferences at this point. However, I was asked to share a few thoughts on the matter, so, I’ll gladly do that here.

I’ll use a few examples of abstracts / proposals that I’ve submitted and break them down sentence-by-sentence. Here’s the first one in its entirety, followed by a summary:

“Binding Up New Evidence In The ‘Strong Man’ Debate: Reading Mark Inner-Textually”

The identity of the “Strong Man” alluded to in Mk. 3.27 is traditionally attributed to Satan. More recently, however, and due to the massive surge of interest in reading NT texts against the backdrop of imperial Rome, this attribution has shifted. For example, in Ched Myers’s 500-page commentary titled Binding The Strong Man, the political powerhouse “Rome” bears this label. This paper contends that an inner-textual reading of Mk. 1-3 challenges both the traditional and imperial interpretations, thereby leading exegetes to ascribe the “Strong Man” designation to another Markan character, namely, Jesus.

Notice that the title sort of encapsulates the thrust of both the abstract and the paper. In my opinion, it’s also kind of catchy because there is some wordplay going on. I’ve made the mistake before of having a title that was so scholarly sounding that persons showed little interest in it. Make sure you have a good, catchy title and that it embodies the abstract that follows and perhaps most importantly, the contents of the paper.

Now, look at the first sentence of the abstract; immediately, I build off of the title. I also let the reader know that I’m dealing with a specific matter (Mk. 3.27). Even more—and I think this is so critical—I inform the reader in a nutshell of how this idea has been thought about throughout history. Following that, the second sentence begins with a contrast and follows with some more recent interpretations of Mk. 3.27. One thing that the first two sentences reveal is that I’ve done my homework and that I’ve become a fluent partner in the conversation. I would encourage those attempting to write abstracts, to try to do something similar if possible. In the third sentence, I simply give an example that acts as proof for the sentence that came before it. In the fourth sentence, there is yet another contrast when I begin to make a different case. In that final sentence, I note my methodological approach (inner-textual), how it fares in dialogue with other thinkers throughout time and what my overall aim is. Now, if you go back and look at my title, you will see that it fits well with what the abstract says. Now, don’t get hung up on the title. I’ve found it helpful to start with a rough draft of a title and abstract and then to move on. I may toy with both for about 10 minutes each but no longer. Then, once my paper is finished, I will come back and re-craft both the title and abstract. This will assure that they are in keeping with the contents of my paper.

We can look at another example here, of a paper I recently gave and the abstract submitted for it:

“Why Jesus Was Baptized: Immersed in Mark’s Culture and Story”

Historically, the baptism of Jesus has proven to be something of an enigma and conundrum for interpreters of the Bible. For those who hold to the theological tenet that Jesus was without sin, the baptismal episode raises a number of significant questions. Among such inquiries, pride of place goes to: If Jesus was sinless, why did He adhere to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Along with attempting to provide a contextually informed answer to this question, this paper will also endeavor to show the important role that Jesus’ baptism plays in the shape of Mark’s narrative.

If we look at the title first, once again, we will notice some wordplay (e.g. baptized & immersed). We also notice that the title is attention grabbing for a couple of other reasons too: 1) It deals with a hotly debated topic, and 2) It alerts the reader that a very definitive answer will probably be put forth (otherwise, the title might have been formed as a question: Why Was Jesus Baptized?). Next, if we look at the first sentence, you will notice that immediately, I have made my readers aware that I have been in dialogue with other thinkers. Typically, this will make people take you seriously; if you don’t dialogue with ancient and modern exegetes, you are less likely to be taken seriously when interpreting a biblical passage. Also, in the first sentence, I begin to allude to an issue: the conundrum posed by this particular event / passage. In the second sentence, I bridge the gap of time by gradually bringing this ancient problem into modern discussion. In the third sentence, I state the obvious as a sort of proof for the necessity of the ongoing research and discussion. In the fourth sentence I state my method (a contextually informed answer, e.g. a socio-cultural approach) and I also state my aim clearly and concisely. Now, if you go back to the title, you will see that the abstract matches with the title.

In taking into consideration both of these titles & abstracts, you notice a sort of common trend that I use:

* Attention Grabbing Title
1. Noting the Historical Discussion of this Issue (yes, you can still do this, even if it’s a recently sparked discussion or issue, just give the background)
2. In this sentence I bridge the gap between ancient discussion about the matter and modern discussion about it
3. In this sentence I make a point and / or offer a proof of the necessity of both the ongoing dialogue and maybe even more importantly for me & my paper, why my research is even necessary after all
4. I state my methodological approach, my aim and sometimes reiterate how it fits with among the wider discussion in scholarship

Finally, I would note that when writing an abstract / proposal, you need to consult the guidelines and make sure you include what is asked and expected of you.


  1. Thanks for the pointers. I'll need to bookmark this for future reference.

  2. Mark, this post is very helpful, but do you not think that the advice given would be best applied for persons more often than not, in biblical studies?

    I will bookmark it and maybe someday give away my paper proposing secrets. lols.


  3. Dan & Rod, glad I could offer a little help. Rod, my example was certainly "biblical studies" oriented but this approach can surely be used in other fields too. One can generalize the approach and modify it to fit their needs. BTW, I'm trying to figure out whether the "Mark" was on purpose (joke) or an accident (which is still funny). Ha.

  4. I think your advice definitely could be applied outside of biblical studies, and to history and social sciences in particular. That said, I'm so glad I've never had to write an abstract!

  5. abstract writing isn't too bad but certainly, writing the paper is the most fun. thx kate.

  6. Just be sure you have a colon in the title. That's really the key.

  7. Chris, that's hilarious!!! GREAT point!