This is going to sound like bragging, but there’s a point to it. Bear with me.
I went to my first writing conference as a keynote speaker. I’d already been making a full-time living as a writer for three years, and I had come to that after more than 10 years of owning a small business. I had a perspective on the business side of freelancing that other writers I knew simply did not, and (because that small business had been teaching martial arts), I was a pretty okay public speaker.
Pay attention, because this part’s important.
I attended my first writing conference as a keynote speaker, and I was still blown away by how much I didn’t know.
For the next few thousand words, I’m going to tell you everything I’ve learned about writing conferences, but the most important thing is this: Until you’ve attended one, you will have no idea how much you don’t know about the business and craft of writing. Until you’ve attended several, you won’t have anything approaching a complete concept of what you need to work on.
Bottom line: go to conferences. Writing conferences mark one of the key differences between a professional writer and somebody who strings words together as a hobby.
The Inside Scoop
You’ll see sections like this throughout this article. Since that first keynote, I’ve spoken dozens of times at conferences throughout the world. I’ve served on the boards of two major conferences, and advised several others. These sections are where I’ll tell you the dirty secrets as I understand them, so you’ll know a little more about how the sausage gets made.
In this one, I’ll let you know that conferences really serve three different customers. The first is you, the attendee. It’s their job to create an event that brings in enough attendees, and that sends them home glad they came. The second is the presenting faculty. Without a good reputation among presenters, it’s hard for a conference to keep providing value to the attendees. The conference must keep faculty happy to maintain that reputation. Third, the conference (usually) serves a governing board attached to a school or a writing association. The board approves financial spending and other resource allocation, and needs to be kept happy. Sometimes this forces political decisions that otherwise make little sense.
All this to say, you are not the only person a conference needs to serve. When a conference feels poorly run, that’s typically because one of the other customers is being served in that moment.
What Is a Writer’s Conference?
A writer’s conference is a gathering of writers, agents, editors, publishers, and other people in the writing industry. They usually last two days, though one-day and three-day conferences do exist. They’re usually held in hotels or convention centers, though you’ll also find them on college campuses and in community centers or schools.
At a writer’s conference, you can expect to find five different elements:
- Classes, where attendees learn about the craft and business of writing.
- Consultations, where attendees get one-on-one or small group attention from professionals.
- Events and mixers, where attendees visit with peers and mentors.
- A trade show, where attendees connect with vendors who provide services for writers.
Let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of each of these elements.
A writer’s conference will provide one or more tracks of classes for attendees to…um…attend. Common topics include how to write dialogue, developing compelling characters, writing query letters, social media strategy for writers, self-publishing, and specific courses on genre.
- The good about the classes is they teach you what you need to know to take your career to the next level. It pays to attend as many as you can manage, so as to make the most of your time.
- The bad about the classes is they often happen opposite other You’ll almost certainly encounter at least one session per conference where you wish you could clone yourself.
- The ugly is that sometimes people get brought in to teach for political reasons. They might be friends with a board member, or powerful in the local community. Sometimes they still teach a valuable class despite this. Other times, less so.
These small-group and one-on-one sessions give an attendee personalized coaching of one form or another. The most common types are critiques (where a professional edits and advises on part of a manuscript) and pitch sessions (where an agent, editor, or publisher sits and considers your idea for acceptance). Others might look at your overall plot structure, social media platform, or website.
- The good about consultations is you can get a lot of on-point and action-ready advice and information from the session. They are definitely worth your time, and even paying a little extra for.
- The bad is they usually run at the same time as various classes. Attending one means missing out on other opportunities for education.
- The ugly is that not all consulting faculty members are doing consultations because they love it. Some do it because it’s part of the contract, or because it pays extra. They’re also often fatigued by the end of the day.
Events and Mixers
Social events give you a chance to hang out with the other attendees. Even small conferences will have a group lunch, and most have a lounge or lobby where people are encouraged to mingle. Most regular conference-goers (including me) think this is the most important aspect from a career standpoint—networking is never a bad thing to be doing.
- The good about events and mixers is you get to commiserate with your peers, make contact with potential mentors, and inspire folks who aren’t at your level yet. The food is usually pretty good, too.
- The bad is you can easily waste your time at the mixers by rabbit-holing into conversations you don’t want or need. Be mindful of what you’re getting out of each conversation and politely excuse yourself if it’s not meeting the objectives you set, either in terms of professional networking or building friendships and relationships.
- The ugly is that a “cool kids table” exists at a lot of conferences. This can make it hard to get access to some of the people you paid to get access to.
The Trade Show
This section of the conference is your chance to spend a lot of money. It almost always includes a bookstore (Danger, Will Robinson!), and also have a few tables with editors, publicity experts, photographers, cover designers, etc., along with some vendors selling things like fan tee shirts and fancy writing journals.
- The good about the trade show is that it exposes you to another side of professional writing: the infrastructure of book production and sales. Even if you’re planning to publish traditionally, it’s a good idea to have some knowledge of this side of the business.
- The bad is that it can cost a lot of money to walk through it, especially if you love cool writing gadgets or are a relentless bibliophile.
- The ugly is that the trade show is stocked in exchange for a paid sponsorship. That sometimes means that who’s in there has more to do with money paid than filling the appropriate need of the writers attending.
Look at the program and website for any conference you like, and you will spot these elements in their native habitat. If one is missing, it might be a red flag that the conference is either highly specialized or run by inexperienced organizers. On its own, neither is a reason not to go, but both are reasons to look a little more deeply into the conference before committing.
Inside Scoop: Bonus Networking
“Bar Con” is an unofficial official thing that happens at most conferences. You won’t find it on the schedule, but it’s so common there’s a slang term for it. Bar Con is where the faculty and other “cool kids” choose to meet up after the conference (or on the evening of the conference) for drinks.
Find out where Bar Con is happening. Attend Bar Con. You don’t have to drink, but do sit down and be part of the conversation. Even if you don’t say a word, you’ll learn a lot. If you do make some friends, they’ll be able to help you with your career.
Why Go to a Writer’s Conference?
Seriously. You should (probably) go to a writer’s conference. The reasons why fall into three categories:
- Classes and Instruction
- Networking Opportunities
- Peer Support
Let’s look at each in depth.
Classes and Instruction
These are the core offerings of the conference. I talked about them in the last section, but they’re worth mentioning again. Outside of an MFA program, these are the best opportunities to both fill the gaps in your training as a writer, and to expand your points of excellence until you are world-class at that thing.
Double down on the classes and instruction by taking notes during class, asking probing questions, and finding out what you should read to continue your education on that topic. It also pays to go to the conference with a buddy, so you can attend different classes and share what you’ve learned. (Remember what we said about competing classes? Short of cloning yourself, tag-teaming classes is the best way to cover extra ground.)
Conferences put you at the same table, or the same corner of a mixer, with people who can help your career. It doesn’t matter where you are right now—there will be somebody at the conference you need to know.
A beginner who hasn’t completed a story yet might meet somebody with a list of markets for her kind of writing. Somebody with a finished novel might talk with an agent who loves the genre. Heck, I met my wife at a conference.
Double down on this opportunity by reading the faculty bios in the conference program and on its website. Find out who might be good to talk with and get to know, then chat with them when the chance appears. Don’t be all stalky, but strike up a sincere conversation about something that person finds fascinating.
Building a support network is important because writing is a lonely profession. You spend hours staring at a screen by yourself, and most of the people around you don’t really get the challenges, joys, and frustrations of putting words together to form a compelling whole.
At a writer’s conference, you are surrounded by people who understand. If you haven’t been to one, it’s impossible to explain how good it feels.
Double down on this mostly by not skipping any of the mixer events. It’s tempting to grab a nap or to work on your manuscript during that down time, but you’ll have time for both when you get home. Visit with people. Gather business cards. Find your peers and friends, and make plans to see them after the conference is over.
Inside Scoop: Volunteering
Almost all conferences rely heavily on a staff of volunteers to make the thing run. Volunteers usually get reduced tuition to the conference, which is nice, but it’s not the only benefit.
If you choose your volunteer role carefully, you can focus your time at a conference on one of the benefits of attending. This usually comes with reduced opportunity to experience the other benefits, but if you’re goal-oriented, this approach can help you leverage what’s available to the best results.
Why Shouldn’t You Go to a Writer’s Conference?
Yes, attending a writer’s conference is a hugely important step in your career. Yes, I recommend going to at least two conferences a year. Yes, this (probably) means you.
But no, conferences aren’t for everybody.
To find out if they’re for you, ask yourself the following four questions:
- Is my career ready for taking the next step?
- Am I personally ready to take the next step?
- Can I afford the tuition?
- Will I follow through on what I learn?
If you can answer “yes” to all four, then a conference is definitely for you. If you can only say that for two or three items, consider a smaller conference. A single day and an investment of $100 to $200 minimizes your cash outlay and risk while still giving you a taste of the conference experience.
If you only say yes to one item—or none at all—consider spending a year working until you can change some of your answers.
Here’s what those questions mean in detail.
Is my career ready for taking the next step?
Taking a graduate-level class is confusing to somebody who’s only taken a 101-level survey course. If you’re just starting with your writing career, or still considering starting one, you might not know enough to use what’s presented in the classes.
Similarly, ask yourself if your work is ready to share with peers and mentors. If not, you can slam through some revisions and get it rough-and-ready. Or you can spend a few months polishing your words and attend the next conference in your region.
Finally, you need to make certain a career in writing is an important goal in your life. If it’s just a hobby, that’s fine! Plenty of great writers choose to write only for their own amusement or to share with family and friends. But if that’s you, don’t spend hundreds of dollars and a weekend away from your family to learn how to change your writing into something you don’t want.
Am I personally ready to take the next step?
Not everybody’s head, life, and situation are in a space where they would be able to apply what they learn at a writing conference. If their work or family demand too much time, inspiration from the conference can quickly turn into frustration.
A good litmus test for this is how hard setting up the weekend away is. You should be able to escape from life and focus on your writing for the entire duration of the conference. If setting that up is difficult, it will probably be difficult for you to follow through after the conference.
You should also have real goals for your writing and your life, and an understanding of how what you do at the conference can potentially serve those goals. Without them, the conference can end up being an expensive vacation where you had to work hard.
In both cases, remember: “Not now doesn’t mean not ever.” If you’re not ready this year to take advantage of what a conference has to offer, you can set goals to make yourself ready next year.
Can I afford it?
Expect to spend $200 per day on tuition to most conferences, plus the cost of getting there and the price of the hotel room. Budget an extra $50-75 a day for drinks, meals, and stuff you just have to buy at the trade show.
If you have to stretch a little to make this happen, that’s okay. But if it means putting yourself in financial stress the months before and after the conference, this will limit your ability to use what you learn.
Instead, save $50 to $100 a month for the next year, then come to the conference in a better financial position. You can also reduce the costs by volunteering and/or sharing a hotel room. These options can also give you more networking and learning opportunities, so it’s a win-win.
Will I use what I learn?
The fun parts of a conference happen while you are there, but the useful parts happen in the weeks and months afterward. Only spend this kind of time and money if you can commit to leveraging the opportunities you bought with those resources.
Look at the conference program. Can you find three or four things in there that you know will help you grow your career once you’ve experienced them? If yes, the conference should be a go. If not, you might be better off using the program to help you decide what directions you want to take your career, then reevaluate and attend next year.
Back to being personally ready, will you have the time to put focus and energy into what you learned at the conference? Again, if you can’t, the conference will be a fun experience but not a smart investment in your career.
Inside Scoop: Stay at the Host Hotel
Do not try to save money by commuting back and forth from your house or by staying at a nearby, less expensive hotel. So many of the most important things happen in between the sessions and after hours. If you have to head home, you will miss those important things.
Invest in staying at the hotel. It’s worth it, even if it means hopping on a message board and sharing a room with another attendee.
How Do I Get Started?
All right. You’ve decided you want to try out a writing conference. You’ve given those questions real thought and come to the conclusion that you’re ready to attend. So, what’s next?
Finding a conference to attend.
There are two schools of thought on this:
- Some folks say it’s best to start at a small, local conference. You can get used to the vibe in a smaller, less complex environment, then work your way up to the larger conferences as you become more comfortable and experienced.
- Other folks say you should just dive into the deep end and go for it. Find the biggest, most prestigious conference you can afford and make yourself succeed.
I have no strong argument against either of these approaches. This choice boils down to which you’ll be happiest doing. Some people like working their way forward in increments, being successful at each stage. Others prefer to do the hard stuff first, even if they screw it up.
You know yourself well enough to understand which choice will be best for you.
Either way, there are three strata of writers’ conferences. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you need to know about each:
Local conferences are run either by a local writers group or a local institution like a community college or library. Occasionally, a local chapter of a larger organization puts them on.
You can expect just 100 to 200 people at most of these, along with one or two tracks of class offerings. The consulting staff will be small, and it will fill up early. Some local events specialize, offering only classes or only consults, and don’t always have evening activities.
Pros of local conferences: a smaller group means better access to the presenters and a tighter friendship with attendees, lower cost in many cases, simple programming is easier to navigate
Cons of local conferences: don’t always draw top-level presenters, consults and classes can fill quickly, fewer adjunct activities like meals and mixers, sometimes hotel options are limited
Find out about these by checking in at local community colleges, libraries, and writing groups.
Inside Scoop: College Connection
In my experience, community colleges throw the best local conferences. There’s an energy and professionalism to conferences thrown for people serious about a career that’s missing from local writing groups.
Larger regional draw from a state, multi-state area, or large metro zone. You’ll find these run by major writing groups, and sometimes by trade associations. Occasionally you’ll see one that’s run purely for profit, but these are rare.
Expect 300 to 500 people to attend—enough that you can’t meet everybody over the course of the weekend. There will be multiple tracks and consultation options, as well as robust mixers. Evening activities will be well-organized and sometimes include some kind of gala banquet or black-tie event.
Pros of regional conferences: facilities tend to be higher quality (including the food), lots of variety in offerings, consult sessions usually fill up slowly
Cons of regional conferences: sometimes hard to connect with the faculty, can be overwhelming, often too much for one person to do
The best place to find out about these is Google. Google conferences in your region and writers’ groups in your region. Whatever pops for the first few entries will be among the better options within driving distance of you.
Inside Scoop: Organizational Affiliation
Most regional conferences offer discounts to members of the organization that puts them on. In many cases, the discount exceeds the cost of membership. Join the organization early if that’s the case. You’ll save money, and get access to pre- and post- conference events.
The big national conferences are major events usually put on for profit or by a national group like Writers Digest or IFPWA. They draw, as the name implies, from all over the country and the world.
Expect a thousand or more people, who are offered hundreds of classes taught by dozens of speakers. Consultation options will be broad and complex. These events are often supported by major mixing opportunities including dances, balls, dinners, and more.
Basically, it’s a big mosh pit of writers, agents, printers, publishers, editors and more all gathered to help each other grow in their careers.
Pros of national conferences: huge variety of offerings will almost guarantee you get what you need, top names will be on site, often offer multiple attendance options to suit different budgets
Cons of national conferences: faceless and anonymous—nobody will be looking out for you, you will not get personal access to most presenters, making good use of programming requires serious effort on your part
Lots of national conferences exist, and some are better than others. The best way to find out which you should attend is to ask around at your local and regional conferences and see what people recommend.
Inside Scoop: Genre Rocks
In my experience, the best national conferences are thrown by the genre associations. Romance Writers of America (RWA), for instance, puts on a huge show every year with programming that goes well beyond how to write a bodice ripper. Definitely check out what’s offered in the genre where you write.
Looking for an easy way to start your search? We’ve compiled a list of 47 top writing conferences throughout the United States.
|Writing Conference||Location||Event Date|
|14th Annual Eckerd College Writers' Conference: Writers in Paradise||Florida||13-Jan-18|
|14th National Black Writers Conference: “Gathering at the Waters: Healing, Legacy, and Activism in Black Literature”||New York||22-Mar-18|
|2017 Free Expressions Seminars--Writing the Breakout Novel, Tampa, FL ** Featuring Donald Maass||Florida||25-Sep-17|
|2017 Writing By Writers Manuscript Boot Camp||California||10-Nov-17|
|2017 Writing By Writers Tomales Bay Workshop||California||18-Oct-17|
|2018 Free Expressions Seminars--Writing the Breakout Novel, Hood River, OR ** Featuring Donald Maass||Oregon||9-Apr-18|
|2018 Writing By Writers Boulder Generative Workshop||Colorado||20-Apr-18|
|2018 Writing By Writers Manuscript Boot Camp||California||6-Apr-18|
|2018 Writing By Writers Methow Valley Workshop||Washington||16-May-18|
|2019 ASLE Biennial Conference||California||25-Jun-19|
|25th Annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway||New Jersey||12-Jan-18|
|Algonkian Writer Conferences||New York||Year Round|
|AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair||District of Columbia||8-Feb-17|
|BookBaby Independent Authors Conference||Pennsylvania||3-Nov-17|
|Books with Bite Workshop and Retreat: Writing Horror and Haunted Novels||Pennsylvania||4-Oct-17|
|Creative Nonfiction Craft Intensive||District of Columbia||14-Oct-17|
|Elephant Rock Retreats for Writing & Yoga||Wisconsin||Year Round|
|FREE Monthly Studio Write-Ins||Illinois||Year Round|
|Highlights Foundation Workshops||Pennsylvania||Year Round|
|Kenyon Review Writers' Workshops||Ohio||Year Round|
|Key West Literary Seminar and Writers' Workshop Program||Florida||11-Jan-18|
|Longleaf Writers' Conference @ Seaside, Florida (formerly Seaside WC)||Florida||13-May-18|
|Memoir in a Year-2017||Illinois||Year Round|
|Midwest Fiction Writers Workshops||Minnesota||Year Round|
|Nonfiction Authors Association Free Teleseminars||California||Year Round|
|North Carolina Writers' Network Fall Conference||North Carolina||3-Nov-17|
|North Words Writers Symposium||Alaska||30-May-18|
|Other Words: A Conference of Writers, Literary Magazines and Independent Publishers||Florida||26-Oct-17|
|Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Writing Residency Writers Conference||Oregon||Year Round|
|Pennsylvania Writers Conference (PWC)||Pennsylvania||29-Jul-18|
|San Francisco Writers Conference & Pre/Post Classes||California||15-Feb-18|
|Steel Pen Annual Writers' Conference||Indiana||28-Oct-17|
|The Craft and Heart of Writing Poetry for Children||Pennsylvania||15-Oct-17|
|The Creativity Workshop in New York||New York||Year Round|
|The Playwright's Center||Minnesota||Year Round|
|The Work Conference||New York||23-Mar-18|
|The Writer's Hotel 2018 NYC Writers Conference||New York||6-Jun-18|
|University of New Mexico Rananim Online Writing Workshops||New Mexico||2-Oct-17|
|University of North Dakota Writers Conference||North Dakota||21-Mar-18|
|Unworkshops: Your Room to Create||Pennsylvania||Year Round|
|Wesleyan Writers Conference||Connecticut||13-Jun-18|
|Western Reserve Writers Conference||Ohio||23-Sep-17|
|Willamette Writers Conference||Oregon||1-Aug-18|
|Write Stuff Writer's Conference, The||Pennsylvania||22-Mar-18|
|Writers Studio at UCLA Extension||California||8-Feb-18|
|Writers Week at Idyllwild Arts Summer Program||California||Year Round|
If you’re after international conferences, writer’s retreats, or other opportunities, check out the searchable database at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
Getting Ready for Your Conference
Now that you’ve identified a conference you want to attend, your next task is to be sure you’ll do it right. Doing it right happens in three phases:
- Ramping up in the year prior to the conference.
- Making the most of the conference while you’re there.
- Following through on what you learn from the conference.
Let’s look at these each in detail.
Ramping Up for the Conference
My conference preparation schedule begins a year out, but if you’ve selected a conference that happens less than 12 months from now, just jump in. Do what you can with your “backlog” and get serious about the time you do have left.
1 year from the conference: Subscribe to the blog and social media updates for the conference. Set the week before and the weekend of the event in your calendar and make those times sacred. Set goals for your writing that you commit to having completed by a week before you go.
6 months from the conference: Check benchmarks for your writing goals to make sure you’re on track. Adjust your goals and work schedule as necessary. If conference registration is open, register to get early access to special events and to take advantage of early bird specials.
3 months from the conference: Register if you haven’t yet. Book your room and any flights or train tickets you need to get. By this time, most conferences will have a schedule up on their website. Use it to see what classes you want to take, and look at the faculty bios to decide who you might want to make contact with. Check benchmarks for your writing goals and make whatever adjustments are necessary.
2 months from the conference: Choose what classes you want to take. Be sure to leave a few holes in your schedule for things you hear about at the event, but make sure about half of your chosen classes really match what you need to move forward in your writing. For each, read the description and presenter bios carefully and then use those to write down a short list of goals for that class. Finally, look at photos from the previous year’s conference to see what the dress code is like. Most are business casual, but some are casual/costume and others lean almost formal. As always, check on your writing goals.
1 month from the conference: Design and order business cards. You can get them for a reasonable price at FedEx/Kinkos if you need to touch them physically. If not, sites like VistaPrint and Zazzle will sell you hundreds for under $20. Nail down your writing goals and push a little on weekends to accomplish them. Spend a night reading the conference programming online to start your mental engines thinking about what you’ll do. Check for cancellations or other issues with your transportation plans, and make a call to confirm your hotel room. Finally, sign up for any consultations you want. These usually cost extra, and are always worth the investment.
3 weeks from the conference: Spend whatever time it takes to be able finish your writing goals the following week. Make a packing list for the conference, and buy any new clothes you might need. Your list should include a laptop and notebook, but resist the temptation to bring printed pages or thumb drives with your manuscript. Nobody wants those. If someone wants to see your work, they’ll give you an email address. If a workshop requires printed pages, you can use the business lounge at the hotel to print them.
2 weeks from the conference: Finish all your writing goals. You’ll spend the next fortnight focused on the event itself. Your business cards should have arrived by now, so check them and reorder if necessary. Review all of the consultations you signed up for. Prepare any documents you’re asked to bring (the only exception to the “no printed pages” rule), and write down your goals for that meeting. Also make room in your schedule for quality time with your family. You’ll be largely absent for the next 10-14 days.
1 week from the conference: Get plenty of rest because you won’t get any that weekend. Dry clean any clothes that need it, and check your luggage to make sure it’s in good repair and everything will fit. Go over your list of goals for the conference and think about them each night. Finally, transfer any files you’ll want access to over onto your laptop and into any cloud storage you use. While you’re at it, load up your phone with music, podcasts, books, and any other entertainment you want for the trip.
The day before you leave: Pack your clothes, laptop, notebooks, and papers. Check them against your packing list. Continue to resist the temptation to print copies. Do a double-check of your transportation to the airport, parking, transportation from airport to the hotel, etc. Get to bed plenty early, because you’re in for a long three to four days.
Inside Scoop: Plan Properly
No matter where the conference is hosted, pack so you can dress in layers. Air conditioning in most hotels and convention centers makes the rooms cold at the beginning of the sessions, but can’t keep up with all the bodies. Things heat up quickly.
If your flight leaves early in the morning (defined as before or during rush hour), look into hotels near the airport. They’ll have shuttles, and many have options to park your car on site if you get a room. Getting on a shuttle at zero-dark-thirty is way less stressful than fighting traffic. In some towns, parking costs more than a hotel room, too.
Your At-Conference To-Do List
This isn’t everybody’s to-do list. Not all writers are ready for everything on this list. Conversely, some of these things are too basic for experienced wordsmiths.
Bottom line: don’t try to do everything I’m about to mention. Instead, choose a few from each section as best fits your needs and the current status of your career.
Compile what you choose into a single document (maybe kept in the notebook you bring) so you can review them from time to time and make sure you stay on track.
These goals are about learning what you need to learn to make your writing better than it was when you arrived. It doesn’t matter how good your writing is on the day before the conference—every writer has room for improvement.
- Attend one class on a skill you know is weak in your current work
- Attend one class on a skill you know is weak in your writing in general
- Attend one class on a genre you know nothing about
- Get your work critiqued in a consulting session
- Find three or four local people to form a critique group with
- Attend a class taught by a writer you personally admire
- Find six people willing to read and comment on the first five pages of your manuscript
This is the most general set of goals, containing everything you need to do or learn to get your book in the hands of the people who will make the next decision about its future. This might mean an agent or publisher. It might mean learning how to market your self-published work. It might mean both.
- Attend one class on writing query letters
- Attend one class on marketing self-published books
- Attend one class on building your platform on social media
- Pitch your book to at least three agents or editors
- Find a successful author to explain how she markets her work
- Make contact with a local who organizes readings and other events in your area
- Sign up for a website review by a consultant on site
Networking is different from marketing, although it serves the same purpose. Where marketing is figuring out how to contact people who will buy our book, networking is contacting people who can help your career in general. This is hard for a lot of writers, since our industry isn’t filled with the world’s most gregarious people.
- Attend all social events of the conference, whether you want to or not
- Meet 10 people you can connect with via social media after the conference is over
- Find two people you can mentor in the coming year
- Buy a drink for a writing hero of yours
- Find “bar con” and stay for at least an hour
- Arrange to get coffee or drinks with one person in the coming weeks
- Go home with all of your business cards given away
- Come home with at least 25 business cards from people who can help you
Review your goals at each mealtime to see how you’re doing, and to see if you need to change any based on the realities of the conference. Don’t ever let a goal push you into doing something you discover isn’t useful. Just shift the goal so the spirit is met even though the wording has to change.
Inside Scoop: Make a Good Impression
While you’re packing, bring some extra ibuprofen. More than one person has made a good connection by having the “cure to the common headache” on hand at the right moment. Also bring one-dollar bills for tipping the bartender.
Ignoring this step is, in my experience, the thing people do the most often to reduce what they get out of a writer’s conference. It’s easy to understand. After the energy you give to the conference, it can be hard to motivate yourself to move swiftly in the days immediately afterward. After the time you spent away, your to-do list at home might be all-consuming.
But even though these are both legitimate excuses, they aren’t good reasons to skimp on this vital step in the process of getting your investment out of a writer’s conference.
Just like with the time leading up to the conference, you’ll get the most by making a list, checking it twice, then ruthlessly accomplishing every goal you set in your own path.
For the first five days: Do nothing writing- or conference-related. Reconnect with your friends and family. Sleep. I know you’ll be excited, but you’ll also be exhausted. Don’t worry: you won’t miss any opportunities. Everybody you talked with at the event is also exhausted. They won’t be able to respond to you for a week anyway.
The weekend after the conference: Make contact with everybody. Go through your notes and business cards, sending a short “great to meet you” email to each person. If you promised anybody anything, note that you’ll send it in the coming weeks. Use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to connect with anybody you can find.
For the rest of that month: Focus on keeping any promises you made during the conference. Email out anything you promised to email. Make a close connection to people you promised to stay close with. Grab a coffee or beer with one or two folks you said you would meet. While you’re at it, make some promises to yourself. Write down 10 things you want to accomplish in the coming year, based on what you learned or were inspired by at the conference.
By the end of the next month: Be in regular contact with three to six people you networked with at the conference. Have your benchmarks set for the goals you made, and a month’s worth of progress toward those goals. In the second half of the month, look again at the work you brought with you to the conferences and make notes about how what you learned will help you make it better.
By three months after the conference: Check your goals to confirm you’re on track. If you promised pages or a complete manuscript to an agent, make sure it’s been sent in by this time. By now, you’ll have met in person with the people you wanted to meet in person, and created social media relationships with people further away. It’s also time to identify the next conference you’ll go to, this time informed by your experience to help you choose the best match for your needs.
By six months after the conference: You should have made half a year’s worth of progress toward the goals you set. You should also be finished with the revisions you needed for the work you brought to the event. Your networking should be fully on track, and by now a couple of contacts will have become legitimate friends.
A year after the conference: You should have completed your first set of goals. Because conferences tend to happen around the same time each year, you have the option of being ready to return and learn a new set of information and make a new set of contacts. Or not. It depends on how well repeat attendance suits your needs after you’ve experienced that particular conference.
Inside Scoop: Stay in Touch
Every conference has a message board. Most of them still use an actual, physical bulletin board or whiteboard posted someplace folks will pass by. Others do something with social media or some kind of chat room. Either way, you can find accountability partners on those boards who you can work with to keep each other on track for the year after the conference.
So listen: writing is a who-you-know business at least as much as it is a what-you-know business. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, this is true at a number of important levels. You should go to writer’s conferences, and you should do them right.
I recommend attending two conferences each year. Just one usually isn’t enough to give you all the opportunities conference attendance can provide. More than one (unless you’re presenting or selling books, but that’s another post), and you won’t have the time and energy to leverage what you’ve learned.
Inside Scoop: Support Your Whole Career
If you really want to push your career forward, go to one writing conference and one industry conference. Writing conferences are wonderful for working with peers and learning how to improve your craft, but guess what? They’re full of writers.
Meanwhile, industry and fan conferences (or conventions) dedicated to the kind of writing you do (like sci-fi or health and wellness) give you a way to keep on the pulse of your topic and to make influential contacts in the area where you write. And—this is important—they are full of the kinds of people who will buy what you write.
I got my first national publication assignment from meeting somebody at a martial arts convention. Both of my traditional book deals came from people I met at conventions. This scoop is for people advanced enough in their careers to have some writing to sell, but once you’re at that point, it can make for a powerful one-two punch.
So: which conferences will you attend between now and this time next year?
No. I’m seriously asking. Hit me up via email at brickcommajason [AT] gmail.com, or find me on Facebook and tell me which conference you’re aiming for this year. We can set up a plan to maximize what you get out of them.
Want to get even more out of your outreach and networking opportunities? Read on!