How to Write AAA Papers

With the AAA deadline more or less past and our minds are on the conference, it might be useful to talk a little bit about what makes a good AAA paper and how to make a good one. Here are my opinions on this subject:

AAA papers matter more than publications: AAA papers are the consommé of our academic inventory of soups and stocks. They are short, so it is easier for people to digest them than publications. Your presentation is not even mostly about the paper, but mostly about you as a person — whether you are ‘smart’ or ‘interesting’ or a ‘comer’ or not. Articles do not allow people to size you up in this way. And, realistically, even in very small sessions, more people may closely attend to your paper than ever get around the scrutinizing your articles. Above all, at AAA you make a flesh-and-blood on people, people who may later be interviewing you for jobs, evaluating you for tenure, or giving you research money. The bad news is that for some reason we treat these papers as the least important form of scholarly publication when, sociologically speaking, they are the most important. The good news is that you now know this while all the in the room do not, so now you have the advantage.

Take it seriously: don’t be a total moron and “write your paper on the plane”. You don’t get to be good at anything by doing it sloppily at the last minute, over and over again. Take the time you need to work on it. This will be easy because…

Seven pages, twenty minutes: AA papers are 20 minutes long, more or less. It takes three minutes to read a page of double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman. Your paper should be 7 pages long. Not 8 pages, and not 6 pages unless you then proceedeth to 7. Don’t come to the meetings with a 50 page dissertation chapter and expect the thing to magically cut itself down to 7 pages magically before your eyes as you stand at the podium during your session.

Think about your evidence: qualitative data takes time and space to layout, which is why anthropologists write long-form monographs. In most cases participant-observation is resistant to tabulation, and I can guarentee no one at AAAs is going to ask you what P is for your study. This means that you will have the freedom to make whatever claims you want in your paper regardless of the quality and amount of your evidence.

With 7 pages to work with, you have roughly 1.5 pages to introduce and conclude and 4 pages to make your case. This is a ridiculously compressed amount of space/time. The good news is that it focuses you to figure out what your point actually is and allows you to dwell on the broad relevance of your findings. The bad news is that you must resist spending four pages just describing where your fieldsite is. Remember: because of length, evidence in AAA papers is decorative and exemplary, a promissory note for the whole story.

I’d suggest either analyzing one single event or case study, or else focusing on three things/conclusions/themes and spending a page and change on each of them. Keep it tight, and remember to include only the details you need to make your point. This will probably be challenging because 1) it is too hard for you to be reductive due to your holistic, particularizing impulses or 2) you have no idea what you actually want to say. Regardless, remember that the evidence is there to make a point, and that your presentation must be point driven.

Read your paper out loud: Remember, a AAA paper is a performance the same way someone on stage doing The Vagina Monologues is a performance. The paper is your script. Read it aloud for twenty minutes, and make it as engaging as The Vagina Monologues except (probably) with less vaginas and more anthropology.

Many people — mostly those with no background in the performing arts — argue that you should never ‘read your paper’ because doing so is ‘boring’. This is just stupid talk. You know what’s boring? Someone going off script telling us what their paper says when it’s right there in front of them delivering an oral presentation full of “um”s and “I guess my point is”s. If you paid fifty bucks to go see Vagina Monologues and the actor stopped halfway through and decided to improvise their own monologue loosely based on the actual monologue, would you give them tenure?

Of course, when you read your paper you should not suck at doing it. Write the paper as if it were a monologue instead of dense academic prose — no one wants to read dense academic prose, much less listen to it. Read it as if it were a monologue. Project, stand up straight, make eye contact, read at a reasonable pace, all that kind of stuff. You could even try rehearsing before you perform if you were feeling really ambitious. In fact, the best way to present would be to just memorize your talk so that you don’t need a paper, but this is usually more trouble than it’s worth.

Revise: 7 pages is totally nothing. Revise constantly. In fact, why don’t you pound out your 7 page draft now, let it sit for a couple of months, and then pick it up a month or two before AAAs? I guarantee it will result in a better finished product. I’ve already written my first draft of my AAA paper.


In sum, AAA papers are so important, and yet so terrible that it should be easy to produce a good one: with the bar this low, how much trouble will you have jumping over it? Do the world a favor and reduce the suck quotient at AAA panels by following these simple pieces of advice today, so we can have a better world tomorrow.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

15 thoughts on “How to Write AAA Papers

  1. “AAA papers matter more than publications.”

    If by “matter” you mean are only seen by the eight people who show up to your panel including the two who left after the first presentation and the other three who were grad student friends of one of the presenters (and that grad student from a foreign university who liked your paper but whom you will probably never see again). Now obviously, this is no excuse for a bad presentation but can we stop pretending that conferences really actually matter for anything other than networking (i.e. having your advisor introduce you to his drinking buddies from grad school or if you are a professor, hanging out with your drinking buddies from grad school). The vast majority of panels I attended last year were poorly attended and mostly included grad students or undergrads in the audience. I very much doubt that most presentations are actually seen by anyone in position of power to affect one’s career. (Again this doesn’t excuse bad presentations but what’s the point of doing a conference presentation that no one will actually attend other than adding another line to your CV).

  2. Sorry for adding this rant to very good advice for giving presentations. I’m just bitter about the amount of money I have to spend for the BS that is the modern conference.

  3. Sound advice, Rex. If you want to be really sharp, try, as an exercise, to write a 30-second TV commercial that conveys the heart of what you want to say. Did I say 30 seconds? In a commercial of this length the narration gets at most 20 seconds. Can you say what you want to say, the bit you want people to remember, in 20 seconds?

    You can? Great. Now remember the old chestnut: Repeat it three times. Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and tell them what you just said. These repetitions should appear at the beginning, somewhere in the middle, and at the end of the presentation.

    Altogether now, you have used just one minute. The other 19 are for reinforcing and fleshing out. Plenty of time to tell a great story or two or elaborate an argument.

  4. Thanks for reinforcing the “let’s read off a piece of paper” nonsense. Thankfully, I don’t need to work with the received wisdom of anthropologists, because although I am an anthropologist myself, I have had the privilege recently of attending major geoscience and archaeology conferences where people have spoken at liberty from very brief notes. And you know what? They were able to present their research clearly and in an engaging manner – without reading a script. That’s right! Using only notes, they were able to speak off script, and yet they gained the respect of their disciplinary colleagues, and managed to maintain the interest of a disciplinary outsider like me.

    So why can’t we do the same? Is it really true that people in the soft sciences are just thicker than people in other disciplines? Say it ain’t so!

    Listen, if you want to read me a script, just send me the damn paper, I’ll read it quicker and get more from it. If you’re working in a live setting, use that setting. Don’t waste my time, and don’t waste your own time.

  5. Good advice about preparation and keeping things concise. There’s nothing worse than running out of time and trying to jam your conclusion into the last three seconds.

    As for presentation style, I tend to like it when people aren’t reading from a script. Tends to be a bit more engaging, IMO. But then, it all depends. Some people can read and keep things really engaging and interesting.

  6. Now if only there were a How to write a How to Write, we could have had a mistake free (grammatical/repetitions etc. e.g. where to use less and where to use fewer) ‘How to guide of How to Write an AAA paper’. BTW READING the presentation is terrible. Most people read out loud badly and boringly. GIVE the paper. That is the reason it is termed that.

  7. I want to echo some of the comments here. It’s disheartening to spend vast sums of money – with registration, transportation, hotels and food it amounts to a month’s pay for a grad – to attend panels where people read papers at me, or to present a paper and have 12 people attend in a large room (half of whom were there for moral support for me). Last year was different, I decided to throw caution to the wind and do a joint presentation pecha kucha style, powerpoint slides with images only that were timed for a perfect 15 minutes, with 3×5 cards for notes. To my surprise the tiny room was packed on the first day of the conference, and in attendance was one of the faculty from a school that scheduled me for an interview at the conference. It went really well, much better than if I had stood up there and read a paper (I did not, however, get the job, but I was complimented on the presentation). I did attend a few other panels but they were, as others have said, read from papers, poorly attended, and dry. The group of us in attendance from my university spent most of our time exploring New Orleans, which was nice, but I really would have liked to be informed, be challenged, be enticed by some really great presentations. Maybe this year?

  8. Whoa, who would have thought a thread about AAA papers would have gotten so Jezebel-y? If you know how to play jazz you don’t need sheet music. But not everyone knows the difference between improvisation and fumbling through. Those people absolutely need to heed Rex’s advice.

  9. A few things I did not do:
    1. Spell everything right. Welcome to teh Internetz!
    2. Claim that 20 minute read presentations are the best genre of presentation at conferences.

    I am resistant to the idea that some genres of presentation are un-mess-up-able: talking from notes (The Real Scientists Can Do It Yet Again Another Example Of How Terrible We Politicized Postmodern Cultural Soft False Fake-O Scientists Are!), pecha kucha, talking to data on a powerpoint — all of these are capable of being screwed up.

    I’d also like to underscore the fact that personal performance in conferences matter. There may be small audiences, but you can never tell who is going to show up — and it only has to be one person who remembers who you are. Over time these things accumulate. And remember: your ‘grad school friends’ will someday be your colleagues, reviewing your book manuscripts, reading your grant applications. Trust me: the old boy network is alive and well and may be living in your panel (or at least have decided to stick their head in).

    The most interesting question raised by these comments is not whether certain genres are bullet-proof, but whether some are more preferable than others. In a world of great, polished 20 minute papers would we still want pecha kucha instead? I suspect that a lot of the energy behind these innovatory forms of presentation comes not from the presentations but the presenters, who have enthusiasm and a desperate desire to resuscitate the proceedings.

  10. The Burns essay got me thru 30 presentation just fine. Think power point when you read slides.

    Vernon Booth
    1991 Communicating in Science: Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

    Karen O. Burns
    1984 Giving Papers. American Antiquity, 49(1):154-161.

    Martha Davis
    2005 Scientific Papers and Presentations. 2nd ed. Elsevier Academic Press.

  11. My two cents: I think that it is crucial to note that AAA presenters are given only 15 minutes and that the program is constructed in such a way that this 15 minute block has to include getting on and off stage, getting one’s slides going, etc. Whether one is giving the kind of scripted and performed talk that Rex is advocating (and that I generally favor) or the kind of archaeology-style talk (Motto: “Slide Driven or Not Given”) that some are defending, a great sin in my book (and one that deeply alienates sensible people) is using up more than one’s allotted time. Whether one is speaking to an empty room or a full house, at the AAAs there is a very good chance that there will be a mob out in the hall waiting to get into the room after you. Even if there were not, using more than your allotted 15 minutes is an attack on everyone that comes after you in the panel (and perhaps, everyone who comes after you in the room for the rest of the day). Panel chairs should push you off stage, but they often do not. While senior people can ruin their reputations with this behavior, junior people can ruin their chances at getting the job that they want. (Checking out job applicants is one key aspect of this expensive ritual.) Even without these practical matters, not preparing a presentation of proper length and not stopping when told to stop are terrible behaviors that cause people to resent you.

    Seven pages in a proportional font is probably too long for 15 minutes. Seven pages courier, maybe. My adviser taught me the ancient typewriter-based folk wisdom of two and a half minutes per one page of double spaced courier (i.e. non-proportional) text. Six such pages would equal a AAA paper.

    Whatever the genre, some measure of pre-event practice is in order, if only to make certain of your timing. For those who don’t want to use scripts, practice is absolutely crucial so as to insure that what you have in your brain is what comes out in the doing. Seemingly effortless TED-talk quality does not just happen.

    Rex–thanks for a hosting a valuable discussion.

  12. @L Moore – That paper is by Karen Bruhns, not Burns (and I agree, she has good advice).

    As a student starting in anthropology, I was amazed and flabbergasted at the first two meetings I attended (an AAA and a SAA) to find that such fascinating research was described in such boring presentations. Then I heard David Freidel give a presentation where he talked directly to the audience, no text, no notes. He was passionate, smart, clever, and very clear. I vowed never to read a prepared text orally again, and I’ve kept that vow for 30 years now (except when I had to present a paper on Maya glyphs for a linguist friend). After my first non-text presentation (at a student, at the AAA), Robert Carneiro started hassling me about my talk (which I took as a compliment) and someone came up and said it was the best talk she had heard at the meetings.

    Maybe this sounds arrogant, but it seems to me that if you can’t talk about your research, maybe you are in the wrong profession. Practice, practice, practice (having a spouse who made me practice over and over didn’t hurt). Always have nice pictures on the screen, whether you need them or just need something for people to look at. Use the slides to time your talk (e.g., a note saying that at 5 minutes the Maori hillfort slide should be up, and the underwater basket weaver at 10 minutes).

    I like John’s point about delivering your message in 30 seconds. At a recent invited lecture, when I asked how long I had, the host asked how long my talk lasted. I replied that I could talk for 5 minutes, 55 minutes, or several hours on the topic. I knew what I wanted to say, I had a bunch of slides that could be zoomed through or discussed in a leisurely fashion, and I had a watch.

    For a 15 minute presentation at a meeting, plan for 10-12 minutes. If you actually get done early, you could invite questions (and shock everyone, used to hurried talks with no feedback). And one of my top pieces of advice for students: if you plan your talk carefully (either a prepared text, or a good outline), and then you pause to explain a slide, you will go over your time limit. Guaranteed. Similarly, never take the pointer to show just where the village is located on the map, etc. That wastes time and looks bad when your can’t hold the pointer steady, and it looks especially bad when you can’t find the village. USE POWERPOINT to highlight the village with an arrow or circle or such.

  13. Last year in New Orleans, I was upset at how many panels I went to that completely cut out the Q+A portions of their talk, because they ran out of time but perhaps it was also intentional. For me, the Q+A is usually the highlight of many a boring panel not only because it challenges the audience and the presenters with new ways of looking at their research, but its probably the only you get to really hear someone “talk” about their research without the usual nervousness (senior professor included here — I’m always amazed at how bad some of the greats are at presenting!)

    My favorite format by far at AAA is the roundtable: you have 5 minutes to present your argument and if you’ve had something remotely interesting to say, people in the audience will help you draw out your argument, examples, theories, etc. through their interests and questions. I wish people would use this format more often — it puts presenters in dialogue with the audience at a level that’s not intimidating for most, allows presenters to talk about their research without “presenting it” in a boring way, and it lets presenters get feedback on your work by sometimes +20 people especially if you have a roundtable of mixed senior professionals and grad students.

    Let’s hope for more roundtables this AAA, and if not, let’s at least leave room for Q+A.

    Thank you Rex for walking us through AAA paper prep, I’ve find myself thinking I could “wing it” only to fail miserably. The truth is, talking out theory and ethnography–especially when it is new research—is hard and it takes a great speaker to do it well and make it interesting.

  14. As a graduating undergrad headed to grad school and attending an AAA meeting for the first time this fall, I found this thread particularly useful. I appreciate all the variety of advice. I think that what should be taken from this thread is the fact that you must know yourself and be prepared. You know if you are capable of speaking in public or if you need to read. If you need to read then I think Rex’s advice of an engaging, monologue style script is fine. If you don’t get nervous and off topic then get up there and speak from the heart. Hopefully, you are passionate about your research for that will reflect in your presentation either way.

    I was disappointed to see negative comments about the meetings. If they are bad then as an anthropologist you should be striving to make the meetings better. They are an opportunity to interact with collegues and role models from across the country – a rare opportunity to engage in stimulating dialogue. I am certainly looking forward to it.

  15. Good point about reading the paper, Rex. If you are a good reader, and you have rehearsed it, and you know it fits in the time slot, then it will certainly be better than a talk that is unscripted and unrehearsed. Those are the papers that never quite get to the conclusions. I feel more comfortable with a script if my time is short.

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