Responding to a Call For Proposals (CFP)

If you are seeking professional development opportunities to bolster your academic credentials and perhaps to prepare yourself to apply for a doctoral program, you may consider responding to a call for proposals (CFP). Frequently, CFPs are for local, regional, national, and international conferences; although, it is also common to find CFPs for contributions to edited collections of essays.

Finding CFPs

One can find CFPs in a variety of locations. Often, you will encounter CFPs circulated through email lists in your field of study. CFPs will also  circulate via social media. Another source will be websites for professional and disciplinary organizations. Finally, there are websites that act as clearinghouses for CFPs. Three in particular are:

Reading the CFP and Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

With any CFP, the reason to respond is to persuade either the editor or the conference organizer to find space for your project in a collection or on a conference program. In both instances, you will need to argue why someone should commit resources, space, and time to your work.

One of the most effective strategies for writing a successful proposal is to research the audience. Who attends the conference to which you will be submitting your proposal? Who will read the collection for which you are proposing a contribution? You can rely on your own experiences with those audiences or talk with people who have those experiences. Either way, it is helpful to know whom you will be addressing so that you can understand what their needs are and what information they will require.

While readers and conference attendees will be the ultimate audience for your work, your immediate audience is going to be the editor, the conference organizer, and the panel of reviewers who are tasked with reading the proposals a CFP generates. This immediate audience will be thinking about the ultimate audience, but they also have their own needs to address as well. First, this reviewing audience is reading under time constraints and they may be reading many submissions. Proposals that fail to make a point clearly, convincingly, and early may get poor evaluations and fail to make it to further rounds of consideration. The reviewers are also concerned with practical matters, such as the fit between proposals within the theme of the conference or the topic of a collection. They may be thinking about how to allocate space, time, and resources with the aim of maximizing participation and supporting projects that seem important, current, enticing, and manageable.

Very often CFPs will be written to address a theme or topic. On CFPs for edited collections, it is safe to assume that the topic is an important aspect of the proposal, since the resulting collection will need to be pitched to a publisher based on the topical coherence of the contributions. Themes for conference CFPs allow more flexibility. Smaller conferences might wish for proposers to stick close to the theme, but organizers of national conferences tend to be more relaxed about adherence to a theme. Look on the CFP for a bullet list of research topics that would be suitable contributions. If anything, this list of topics will give a sense of how the editor or conference organizer is thinking about the overall topic or theme.

Writing the Proposal

The format for proposals will vary but most CFPs will specify a preferred submission format. However, there are some response strategies that tend to work across situations. First, start with a single sentence or two in which you state the point of your contribution. Make the sentence structure simple and get your point across. This is your hook; it's what grabs the reviewer's attention and signals that more attention is merited. Once you have convinced the reader/reviewer to spend more time with your proposal, based on the strength of the topic, elaborate on what you will be discussing. Try not to go too deeply into background material since doing so assumes that your reader has more invested in your project idea than they might in reality. Next, sell the reader/reviewer on the audience take away. What will readers or conference attendees take away from your contribution: a new understanding, a rubric, a guide, best practices, an appreciation, etc. Then follow up with a statement reassuring your reader/reviewer that you can actually deliver what you promise. Is this research already finished? If not, what are the steps you are undertaking to carry out this project?

After you have a draft, test it out on your colleagues. Give them a short amount of time to read the proposal and ask them:

  • What is the proposal about?
  • What will the audience take away?
  • Why is the project significant?

If any of these points seem unclear, then you will know where to focus a revision.

The above advice holds well for a conference proposal, but the same basic structure also works for proposing other kinds of projects. A proposal for a book section or for a contribution to a special issue of an academic journal will allow you more space to make your case, but the same kinds of constraints and considerations apply.

-- Jason Swarts