How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference

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In only a few weeks, our staff will be venturing west for the Writer’s Digest Conference in Los Angeles, set for Oct. 19-21.

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On tap this year, writers can expect keynotes by Aimee Bender and Steven James, sessions taught by authors Elizabeth Sims, James Scott Bell, Rob Eagar, Nina Amir and many others, workshops on everything from crafting characters to agents and marketing, and, of course, our signature speed-dating style pitch slam loaded with agents.

If you’re going (or if you’re planning to attend another conference any time soon), here’s some valuable advice from an article the brilliant Elizabeth Sims wrote for us. (If you see her at the Writer’s Digest Conference West, I highly recommend offering to tap her wisdoms over a martini. She's good people. And wise people, if you'll forgive my already broken colloquialisms.)



1. Arrive early to scope out everything, get settled and make friends. It’s incredibly bracing to have someone you can eat with or wave to as you enter a room.

2. Be on the lookout for faculty hanging around during downtime. Strike up a conversation, not about yourself and your work, but about them, because you’re here to learn. Try questions like, “If you were just starting out today, what would you be writing?” or, “What’s the best attribute an author can have?”

3. Carry a full-sized notebook for the full-sized ideas you’re going to write—not a tiny one for tiny ideas.

4. Focus sharply on what you want. Make a mission statement: “At this conference I intend to learn how to write better suspense / organize my nonfiction project / figure out an ending to my novel.”

5. If you’ve submitted work for critique, be open and receptive. Never argue or try to justify anything. Ask for more explanation, but don’t take notes—it’ll only distract you. As soon as it’s over, write full notes.

6. Make up your mind you won’t be judgmental, easily offended or needy. Remember, it’s not about you—it’s about your writing.

Bonus tips:

  • Take nothing for granted. Speak up and ask lots of questions.
  • Cut your losses and leave a session that’s not right for you. Step in late to another one where you might learn something truly useful. If that fails, find a sunny spot outside, open your notebook, and do some writing until lunch. Any writing.
  • Writing is the only thing that matters. Do it.
  • Agents might be only human (as they continually insist they are), but they can also be as callous as dingoes, so cast a wide net when searching for a good one.
  • In spite of everything going against us, writers are as doggedly hopeful as orphans on Parents’ Day. This, I think, should be celebrated.
  • Fight smugness and spitefulness for all you’re worth.
  • Worship ye not heroes.
  • Figure out how much whiskey you think you’ll need, then pack double that amount.

Zachary Petit is an award-winning journalist, the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, and the co-author of A Year of Writing Prompts: 366 Story Ideas for Honing Your Craft and Eliminating Writer’s Block.

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