How to Make the Most of Any Writing Conference

If you’re going to invest in attending a writing conference, you’ll want to be sure to make it worth your while. And who knows better how you can do that than the people who make it all possible? Here, coordinators from 10 top events reveal their best insider tips on how to prepare, network, maximize your time and even dress to impress.


LindaWater1-300x226This guest post is by Linda Formichelli (lindaformichelli.com), co-author of The Renegade Writer. She has been a full-time freelancer since 1997 and has written for more than 150 magazines and websites, including USA Weekend, Inc., Health, Redbook, WebMD, Cleveland Clinic Magazine, Pizza Today, Women’s Health, Family Circle, and Writer’s Digest. She’s also co-authored eight books, has done copywriting and content marketing for companies like OnStar and Pizzeria Uno, and has blogged professionally.


1. GET IN THE RIGHT MINDSET.
“Writers make two big mistakes at conferences. The first is taking it all too seriously. Some folks are so overwhelmed with being at the conference [that] they forget to enjoy, learn and laugh. On the last day I see some [attendees] close to tears because they missed the trees for the forest. However, the other big mistake is being too laid back and too comfortable and forgetting the goal of getting published. While there are cocktail times and plenty of opportunities to mingle, publishing is a business.”

—CARRIE McCULLOUGH,
South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference
(Myrtle Beach, S.C., myscww.org/conference)

2. DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
“Google the writers, editors and agents [who will be featured at the conference] and [get] a good sense of what they’ve written, what kind of publications they edit and what kinds of writers they represent. At Book Passage, for example, we have a mix of newspaper, magazine and online editors, so wise students will spend time researching the different publications and websites. That way they can home in on the three or four people they want to be sure to meet and talk to, and they can come up with some questions they really want to get answered. The writers, editors and agents really appreciate it when the students they speak with are already familiar with their work.”

—DON GEORGE,
Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference
(Corte Madera, Calif., bookpassage.com/classes/twc.htm)

3. COME PREPARED.
“If you have a manuscript, bring it! You can’t sell it if it’s sitting at home on your desk. The second thing not to forget is your business card—with your photo on it. A lot of people remember faces and not names, so that’s very helpful. The third thing to bring is a notepad and pen. There are many wonderful workshops, and you’ll want to take lots of notes.”

—DONNA YOUNG,
Society of Southwestern Authors’ Wrangling With Writing
(Tucson, Ariz., ssa-az.org/conference.htm)

[Understanding Book Contracts: Learn what’s negotiable and what’s not.]

4. BE PROFESSIONAL.
“Dress should reflect each writer’s own signature style. Professional casual is universal and generally makes a good impression. When meeting editors and agents, remember your manners, and don’t rush them or forget that perhaps they need a little break.
“Finally, attend the opening cere-monies banquet. That way you may sit with other authors and speakers from around the country.”

—ELIZABETH BLAHNIK,
Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference
(St. Simons Island, Ga., scribblersretreatwritersconference.com)

5. BE REALISTIC.
“The biggest mistake writers make … [is to] have unreasonable expectations. [Don’t] count on meeting your agent, signing with them and having them sell your work before the conference is over. That just doesn’t happen. And don’t set your heart on meeting/signing with just one agent or editor—you never know who you’ll meet who will like your work. If you don’t meet up with your heart’s desire, reach out and write to him or her after the conference.”

—ELIZABETH POMADA,
San Francisco Writers Conference

6. SET GOALS UP FRONT.
“When deciding on a conference to attend, research the type of conference that suits your needs and ask trusted friends for recommendations. At the conference, decide where you want to focus—for example, more time to generate work, more mentoring or increased contact with other writers. Once there, open yourself to learning.”

—JOAN HOULIHAN,
The Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference
(Colrain, Mass., colrainpoetry.com)

[Here’s a great article on how to structure a killer novel ending.]

7. BE COURTEOUS.
“When approaching editors and agents, ask if they want to be solicited, and then listen to their answers. Don’t try to pitch right there—ask how they like to be approached (e-mail, text, phone) and then do exactly as they say. My pet peeve is someone who asks how they should get in touch with me, I give them my e-mail, and then they send me messages on Facebook or Twitter. Or they ask me to e-mail them! That is so not going to happen.”

—MARTHA FRANKEL,
Woodstock Writers Festival
(Woodstock, N.Y., woodstockwritersfestival.com)

8. MAKE CONNECTIONS.
“Even if you’re an introvert, push yourself to talk to everyone around you. You’ll triple what you learn, make friends and get tips you couldn’t get any other way. When you get home, send a little two- to three-line ‘so glad to have met you’ e-mail, and then stay in touch with the writers you met.

“If you have a writing specialty, and the person you’re talking with has another, midway through the conversation—not right at first, which could be construed as ‘dissing’ [someone]—ask, ‘Do you know anyone here who writes about X, as I do? Will you introduce me, or point them out?’ ”

—SALLEY SHANNON,
American Society of Journalists and Authors Writers Conference
(New York, asja.org/wc)

9. NETWORK NATURALLY.
“Avoid thinking of it as networking. You’re there to meet like-minded folks also struggling to discover what the world means and how to then communicate some form of that back to the world. Networking is a business word from the business world, and it’s essentially empty. During pitch sessions, don’t come off like a desperate freshman pawing at the most popular cheerleader. Sales don’t happen at conferences, either. It might be good to remember that.”

—CHESTON KNAPP,
Tin House Summer Writers Workshop
(Portland, Ore., tinhouse.com/workshop)

10. PERFECT YOUR PITCH.
“If the conference offers editor or agent pitch sessions, have a clean, crisp three-sentence pitch for your project: title, hook, basic premise. Practice the pitch in the mirror and on fellow writers. Do not tell the agent or editor how much money you’ll make for him or her, or compare yourself to famous, bestselling novelists. … Don’t whip out the whole manuscript, but do have a few opening pages handy just in case the agent or editor asks. Allow enough time for the agent or editor to ask you questions!”

—SHARON SHORT,
Antioch Writers’ Workshop
(Yellow Springs, Ohio, antiochwritersworkshop.com)

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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2 thoughts on “How to Make the Most of Any Writing Conference

  1. JanelleFila

    I agree that you should always put yourself out there! At the conference I attended, I volunteered to read my pitch to my “Pitching 101” class, which directly led to three full and three partial requests of my manuscript. I read the first two pages of my novel to my “tribe,” a group of other YA authors who gave me awesome criticism and feedback. This led to answer meals together and three amazing friendships, one of whom has become an excellent critique partner. I never expected any of that when I went to my conference. I’m so shy I worried I wouldn’t know who to talk to. But vy putting myself out there I made some amazing connections and friendships that I hope last a lifetime. Janelle http://www.janellefila.com

    1. carlisdm

      Hi, I’m attending this year’s Writers Digest conference (only in a couple of weeks) I’m really not sure what kind of printed material to bring. Should I bring my whole manuscript or should I bring several printed copies of my first chapter, first 10 pages, or first 50 pages? any advice on that? Thanks!

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