From elf shelf to abstract in several convoluted stages

The aim of this post is to document the process of drafting an abstract for a conference paper. I felt it would be useful personally, as well as to others to explore this topic especially as I have just been through this process and thought that capturing the thought process while it was still fresh might be useful. Before we start though I do apologise for the length of the post, nobody should have to read a 3000-word blog post but, in my defence, there is a lot to cover.

So, let’s start at the beginning: an abstract is a concisely worded summary of an article, paper or presentation. You might think of it as a sort of précis or synopsis what follows and it is found at the beginning of a manuscript. It is an easy point of entry into the subject being discussed and should cover the scope purpose and results that will be found in the following text. The abstract might set out a thesis, outline the main questions and offer some context of the paper. It often includes key words or terminology form the main paper but should not be an excerpt but rather, it should stand alone as an original piece of writing.

An abstract allows the reader to quickly evaluate whether or not to read a paper. It can be really time saving when looking through lots of material. You may have seen abstracts when search library databases and in this instance, it gives you the opportunity to decide if this is an article you want to include in your literature review (indexing). It also serves as a means for selecting for example, whether or not to include a paper in a conference (election). So, my purpose in writing an abstract is to convince the organisers of the conference I would like to attend that: the paper addresses the conference themes, is an original piece of work, is scholarly and academic and would be of interest to those attending the conference. I also find that the process of writing and abstract, presenting a paper at conference and then developing a paper for publication is a very productive and effective writing process. So, there is a personal engagement with the idea of drafting abstracts which also, for me signals the start of a longer-term research process.

The abstract I am writing about was intended for the 10th Annual Small Cinemas Conference which, at the time of writing, is planned for September 2019. The tile of the conference is Small Cinemas, Small Spaces and the ‘call for papers’ (CfP) asked for respondents to consider a range of thematic issues (see below for these).

Topics for discussion may include, but are not limited to:
– the geographies of film: how space and time are articulated in small cinemas
– representations of space in peripheral or marginal cinemas
– spaces and scales of film production, e.g. costume and set design in small cinemas
– film locations in small nation cinemas
– exhibition venues and viewing practices in small nations
– audiences’ experiences of minor cinemas
– small spaces for film exhibition
– the emergence of film societies as alternatives to the ‘large’ mainstream
– smartphones, tablets or other devices as cinematic spaces
– cinema and scale in Youtube and other digital platforms
– making films for small spaces

When I saw the CfP, which came to me via an email list I subscribe to, I was struck be the correspondence between the proposed themes and an idea I for a paper that I had been keeping on the ‘elf shelf’ for some time.

NOTE: An ‘elf shelf’ is actually a term for a wooden shelf in an enclosed front porch and is a term I have been using for some time for a place where you can just store ideas until they are ready for use. Not all ideas are fully formed when you have them or are timely, ready for use or have a destination. So, it’s good to have somewhere to store them even if only metaphorically. Sadly, I am unable to provide an etymological reference for this term suffice to say that I first heard it used by a performance poet Rachel Pantechnicon, when introducing the poem ‘Elf Shelf’ at Write Angle poetry night in 2008 (see video).

The idea at the start was very general and related to a 48 Hour Film Challenge which, at that time, I had been running for around fourteen years. In the last few years I had started to collect data in the form of surveys and interviews with the aim of, at some point, writing a paper that evidenced the impact of informal filmmaking challenges on the development and formation of a communities of filmmakers. The notion of a 48-hour film challenge connected in some way or another with all of these themes, at least to me it did. So, I wrote to the organisers outlining my idea and asking for feedback. This is what I got:

It sounds like a fascinating topic, which is indeed connected to the themes of the conference. I can see how what you’re researching can be described as a small cinema – I just wonder if it is somehow connected to issues of space too? If you can make that link, then I wouldn’t worry too much about the ‘nation issue – as you say, it takes place in the UK, but it is mostly a local, alternative, practice. Hope this helps”.

And there lay the challenge – how to connect what I hoped to do with the notion of space!

I started to think about how I could address the notion of space in the drafting of an abstract and this is the process I want to try and now ‘trace’. In order to proceed I needed to develop a theoretical framework, a lens through which the issues could be addressed. I already had a sense of the problem, the questions and the purpose but how to find a way into this topic that addressed this issue of space.

The first stage for me is always a literature review, a discovery or ideation phase (following the principles of design thinking). Discovery needs to be fuelled by inquiry and in this case, I spent some time playing around with key words. Getting the right keywords is always a challenge especially when you are exploring a topic of which you know very little. What are the terms used by experts in the field, what forms of expression do they use, how are issues phrased? Cracking this code is a challenge but in my experience once you get the search string right the doorway opens into another world of knowledge and information. It’s a bit like falling down the rabbit hole, it can be overwhelming when you first crack the code and there is always the possibility of generating to much material, of distraction and horror of horrors procrastination (yes, the excitement of engaging in a lit review can also lead to procrastination as you explore tangential lines of flight and fall deeper into the rabbit hole). Unfortunately, I didn’t record the process of playing with search strings which is a shame, but what do is outline a few of the epiphanies that arose from the process.

The initial sticking point was that while the literature on small cinemas is quite extensive the categorisations in this field tend towards the geographical, political and economic. There is a concern here for the cinema of small nations and discourses of power that work through these categories. In one sense this was quite useful as it enabled me to conceptualise DVMISSION as a mirror in microcosm of the mainstream elite forms of cinema to which small cinema is contrasted. For example, cinema in this sense includes everything that occurs from initial idea through production, to sales, distribution and into exhibition. DVMISSION does all of these things by: setting a challenge for filmmakers to make a 2-minute film in 48-hours (from script to production); and then screen the film the following weekend at an awards ceremony (sales); after which the films are uploaded to the internet for a final online version of the competition (distribution and exhibition). This insight gave me an opportunity to position my study in relation to the body of work that would inform most of the conference papers at the Small Cinemas, Small Spaces symposium.

Epiphany number one: DVMISSION is a mirror of elite, commercial mainstream cinema in microcosm

However, this insight really didn’t address the issue of space in the way that I needed it to. Remember the purpose of the study was to argue for a recognition of the value I perceive these kinds of informal filmmaking challenges bring to local communities of filmmakers. Two papers I found unlocked this for me, the first on project networks and film careers, the second taking a sociological position on space that argued: space is inhabited by objects, place is inhabited by human beings. By which I mean, space is an abstract world inhabited by things that have physical relationships with each other. Whereas place is inhabited by symbolic objects that are situated in a semiotic system of signs. It is a node where the cultural, historical and sociological comes together in an encounter that is experienced or lived by human beings. Place is not located in relation to fixed concrete objective spaces it is something that is lived, dynamic, shifting and moveable. It is wherever people put it. This resonates with the idea of project networks which are rhizomatic and linked by nodes of intersecting experiences that occur not in space but in place. This insight allowed me to think of DVMISSION as a place not a space and enabled me to link the aims of the study with the theoretical framework for the conference.

Epiphany number two: DVMISSION is a node in a project network.

Epiphany number three: DVMISSION is a place not a space.

Obviously this all a little simplified for the purpose of writing this blog post (read the paper for all the excruciatingly brilliant details) but it serves the purpose; I had all the parts and could start to look at assembling the abstract. Now I have written abstracts before, and they have mostly been accepted but wanted to explore the topic a little further and wanted to know how to write the perfect abstract. A brief trawl of the topic online suggested that there is common agreement about what makes a good abstract. There are slightly different approaches recommended for particular subject disciplines. Nonetheless, it would be possible to broadly describe the structure of an abstract as thus:

Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?
Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?
Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.
Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Personally, I find that breaking writing down into chunks using headings is a really good way to ensure a solid foundation for the structure and focus of the writing. So, I proceeded to develop my content under the headings as below:


Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in the larger work?

Breaks with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema production and exhibition in microcosm, that acts as a locus for communities of practice that that intersect primarily through project networks.

Problem: What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?

The study aims to question the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of dispersed and rarefied communities of practice. It takes as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running on the south coast of the UK for 14 years.

Methodology: An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.

The research draws on rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data undertaken via video recordings, online surveys and semi-structured interviews. The data emerges from work undertaken on a 48-hour film challenge that has run for fourteen years in Portsmouth on the south coast of the UK.

Results: Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.

The paper aims to evidence the contribution that supposedly ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activities such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, creative leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks.

Implications: What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?

Through the research it is hoped to be able to argue for increased support among local business, organisation and local governments for the support of initiatives such as a 48-hour film challenges by evidencing the impact on the development of communities of practice.


Once I had been through the text a few times, editing, refining, reworking I removed the headings and started to work on the flow of the sentence and paragraph structure arriving at:

The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, a locus for communities of practice that intersect primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England. The paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper aims to evidence the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

As I am part of a writers group I was quickly able to get some feedback along the lines of “be more positive, for example say: ‘the paper evidences’ rather than ‘the paper aims to evidence the contribution’”. There were some typos and other edits made to sentence structure but the abstract was at this stage pretty much finished. I also played with the title to try and capture the ideas within the paper but also as a means of hooking the readers interested and thus the final abstract and title was:

From space to place: the 48-hour film challenge as a locus for project networks

ABSTRACT

The paper argues for a break with the notion of small cinema as temporally located space and reconceptualises it as an embodied place. A shadow site, mirroring elite forms of cinema in microcosm, as a locus for communities of practice that intersects primarily through project networks. Taking as a case study DVMISSION, a 48 Hour Film Challenge that has been running for fourteen years on the south coast of England, the paper questions the ways in which participatory filmmaking challenges impact on the development and sustainability of communities of practice. The research draws on a rich mixture of auto-ethnographic reflection, observation and qualitative data gathered over a four-year period via video recordings, surveys and semi-structured interviews. The paper evidences the contribution that participation in a ‘fun’ and ‘entertaining’ activity such as a 48-hour film challenge can make to the evolution of a thriving and sustainable creative economy. It aims to demonstrate the value of participation in events of this kind for early career filmmakers through an engagement with their own personal narratives. It attests to the ways in which a culture of gifting, collaboration, leadership, and a philosophy of creativity through constraints fosters the development of effective project networks. By evidencing the impact on the development of communities of an argument can be made for increased support among business, organisations and local government for initiatives such as the 48-hour film challenge.

(word count 231)

This was then promptly sent off to the conference organisers and hopefully, fingers crossed they will accept it. As I say above, I find the process of abstract, to conference paper, to draft journal article really works for me. It’s not for everyone but it is a structure that I find productive. Now of course I need to revisit the research data and start to do some analysis and prepare for the presentation. Then I will revisit the literature and begin to draft the paper. Probably in about 6 – 8 months’, if it all goes to plan I would imagine submitting to a journal in the early part of 2020. This is a typical time line for a study like this that has to fit in around other commitments. So around 18 months from first idea to final paper submitted to a journal and then another 6-12 months to get it published. So, the full cycle can be around 2-3 years for just one paper.

I hope this has been useful.

Featured image borrowed from: Mitcommlab

One Comment

  1. Who knew so much work lay behind a 231-word abstract? However, as someone who really should get their act together and have a bash at writing one of these things, I found your blog demystified the process and made it seem doable. Although turning that doability into actual doing still seems like a stretch for me!

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    Reply

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