How to Turn a Class Paper into a Conference Paper
The first question is, what are you asked to submit: a full paper?
An abstract? An extended abstract? Or a paper proposal?
1. The Abstract:
This is usually a good thing to write once you think you've got a draft of your paper well in hand (aka the class paper). Alternately, I like to write one as soon as I think I know what I'm going to write, and then revise it many times along the way. Because abstracts are usually quite limited in length (e.g., 150 words), abstracts help you to figure out the key focus of your paper. Once you've got an abstract you really like, that becomes the rudder that steers you toward editing the paper for clarity and focus.
2. The Paper Proposal and Extended Abstract:
The main things you'll want to do in your proposal: Make sure you know how long the proposal is supposed to be. There's a big difference between what you'll want to do for a 150-, 500-, or 1000-word proposal, obviously.
Regardless of length, somewhere early in the proposal you'll want to include a sentence that says something like, "this paper will explore ____" or "the question this paper seeks to address is ____."
Include at least a few recent references that will help the reader to know what literature you situate yourself within (e.g., is this a study on fandom? They'll want to know that you've read and thought about recent works on fandom, like Matt Hills' Fan Cultures, which was probably the most-cited book I heard about at this past year's ICA. Is it on the economics of fandom/audiences? In that case, are you citing Heather Hendershot's Nickelodeon Nation , or Kristal Brent Zook's Color by Fox? Is it on the economics of the media industries? Cite Mara Einstein's Media Diversity: Economics, Ownership, and the FCC and pretty much anything by Robert McChesney. Etc... I can help you with some of these cites, if you want).
If you're working with a certain social theorist (e.g., Foucault) mention who it is and briefly, which work specifically you think is relevant to your current study. The more specific here, the better. If you know how others in the field are currently using your chosen theorist, that strengthens your proposal considerably.
Here's a little insider advice: look up the conference organizer or division chair by googling him/her. This is the person who selects the blind reviewers who will look over your proposal. The closer your research seems to be to his/her interests, the more likely it is that your proposal will be successful. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, as the best division chairs know people across a range of paradigms and can send them to people who are much closer to your interests than they are. Sadly, though, we all tend to think our own way of researching things is the best way, so our friends tend to agree more than disagree with our way of seeing the world. This might help you as you think about which division might be most receptive to your interests in the cases of big international conferences, though.
3. The full paper:
On writing: my advice to grad students tends to be to write in a way that's *counter* to what you learn to do in the first year or so of grad school. While it's important to define yourself against what you're NOT doing, it's probably even more important to see yourself in relation to what others ARE doing. The first (e.g., I'm not-effects, or not-celebratory cultural studies) is the key graduate student task that helps you to figure out what you do and don't care about; the second is the key task that helps you to be in conversation with, and thus a contributor to, an ever-expanding world of thought on media).
For the most part, you'll want to follow the advice above for the paper proposal to signal to the reader what your paper is going to be about. Here's a really simple outline:
What's going on related to your topic that's interesting and/or raises broad questions
What's your paper going to address, cover, or do; what's the question or focus
In this section, demonstrate that you know the scholarly work relevant to your field of study
The concluding sentence should be something that identifies something that your paper's addressing that is either not in the current literature, or looks at the current literature from a new direction. This is a tricky thing to do for grad students, as it's almost impossible to know whether or not what you're doing is truly new. Run this by a mentor or two in your field so you don't end up sounding like you're reinventing the wheel with no knowledge of advances in transportation technology.
Only relevant to social scientific studies, yet the sticking point for reviewers because it's such an easy area in which to identify weaknesses and lacunae. The best thing to do is to choose an article you like and follow the model of how they addressed issues of methodology. This way, you're at less risk of overlooking something important (e.g., the sample size or location of the study, the fact that the names used are all pseudonyms, etc.).
Findings, Analysis, Body of the Paper:
The format of this is dictated by what you're writing on/about, what data you're using, and which approach you're taking. Again, check out articles that model the approach you want to take and follow their lead.
I'm terrible at writing discussion sections. Usually I find that in my first draft, I try to pack way too much into the literature review. Once I've figured out what I'm doing in the body of the paper, I can start to see how some of the literature review should more appropriately come up in the discussion section. This is not the time to introduce a brand new idea, but it can be a good way to leave some of the literature in the first section and then elaborate on it, or talk about a specific subsection of it, in relation to the data or analysis you've now introduced.
I go back to my high school English teacher here: go back to the intro and reword it, basically summarizing what you've said. It's also the place you can add a sentence that says, "future research should consider___". Make sure you've got a great last line. Again in the stealing-from-oneself category, you might find it buried in the lit review, abstract, or elsewhere. Don't repeat it but move it here, where it'll leave a good last impression.
I'm always glad to read over proposals and abstracts, if that would be helpful. I prefer to discuss papers in my office so that you can write up the notes from a real-life conversation. Just drop me a line and give me a day or two to respond. Conference submissions can be a pain, but I'm convinced that there's no better way to learn very quickly about the overall direction, and "culture," of the field you're in, than to attend conferences and meet people. It's an enriching and humbling experience, but it's also really enjoyable to meet smart people you wouldn't otherwise know who share your interests and commitments. Good luck!