Onward! 2011

October 22–27, 2011
Portland, Oregon USA

ACM Symposium on New Ideas in Programming and Reflections on Software

Call for Essays

Onward! attendees are looking for ideas—interesting, challenging, and provocative ideas—and are looking to Onward! Essays to provide them.

While SPLASH and Onward! authors are adept at writing technical papers, the essay form has proven to be more elusive. This year the Essays Track will take the form of a writer’s workshop.

Authors are invited to submit a proto-essay—a draft—of their idea.

Selection for the workshop will be simple: does the idea look interesting and does the draft show potential? The author must be committed to the development of the idea and completion of the draft at the workshop.

There are no absolute limits to page length but authors should heed the following guidelines. Two-to-three pages are probably ideal. Less than one page hints that the idea is insufficiently conceived. Four pages is close to the limit for valuable and detailed feedback.

Ideas that make it through the workshop and become essays will be published in the ACM Digital Library as part of the Onward! Companion.

Important Dates:

  • Friday, September 23—Ideas submitted. (Early submission is encouraged. You will receive prompt notification and feedback that would allow for revision and resubmission before the final deadline (if necessary).
  • Friday September 30—Final notification of acceptance.
  • Wednesday October 5—Accepted Authors must be registered to attend.
  • Monday, October 10—Workshop groups formed, authors supplied with copies of all essays in their group.
  • Sunday, October 23: Essay Workshop, 13:00-17:00
  • Thursday, October 27: Essay Presentations (Time TBD)

Essay drafts should be sent directly to the Essay Committee Chair: Dr. David West at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Selection Committee:

  • David West—New Mexico Highlands University
  • Leigh Fanning—University of New Mexico
  • Jenny Quillien—New Mexico Highlands University

Workshop Leaders:

  • David West—New Mexico Highlands University
  • William Cook—UT Austin
  • Richard P. Gabriel—IBM Research


If you wish more background for composing your draft, consider Robert Atwan’s comments on writing essays, especially the second paragraph. The point of the workshop is to help authors, and readers, use the essay as “an act of discovery, an opportunity to say [think] something they had never before thought of saying.”

Years ago, when I was instructing college freshmen in the humble craft of writing essays - or ‘themes,’ as we called them—I noticed that many students had already been taught how to manufacture the Perfect Theme. It began with an introductory paragraph that contained a ‘thesis statement’ and often cited someone named Webster; it then pursued its expository path through three paragraphs that ‘developed the main idea’ until it finally reached a ‘concluding’ paragraph that diligently summarized all three previous paragraphs. The conclusion usually began, ‘Thus we see that….’ If the theme told a personal story, it usually concluded with the narrative cliche, ‘Suddenly I realized that….’ Epiphanies abounded.

What was especially maddening about the typical five-paragraph theme had less to do with its tedious structure than with its implicit message that writing should be the end product of thought and not the enactment of its process. My students seemed unaware that writing could be an act of discovery, an opportunity to say something they had never before thought of saying. The worst themes were largely the products of premature conclusions, of unearned assurances, of minds made up.… So perhaps it did make more sense to call these productions themes and not essays, since what was being written had almost no connection with the original sense of ‘essaying’—trying out ideas and attitudes, writing out of a condition of uncertainty, of not-knowing….

The five-paragraph theme was also a charade. It not only paraded relentlessly to its conclusion, it began with its conclusion. It was all about its conclusion. Its structure permitted no change of direction, no reconsideration, no wrestling with ideas. It was—and still is—the perfect vehicle for the sort of reader who likes to ask: ‘And your point is…’.