Making The Most Of Writers’ Conferences

writers' conferences

Writers’ conferences are valuable because they immerse you – if only for a few short days – into your art. They can make you aware of how much you don’t know, how much you need to know, and expose you to things you need to succeed.

When I hear people grumbling about writers’ conferences, I usually find the authors went with unreasonable expectations or knowing little about the conference they selected. Believe me when I tell you that a series of worthwhile writers’ conferences can be the near-equivalent of an MFA for a time-starved writer juggling creative aspirations and the requirements of a day job.

Authors often go to writers’ conferences hoping they’ll snag an agent or publisher, but they do this before they’ve taken enough time to polish their craft. After an experience like this, a potential author might throw up her hands and decide to self- or subsidy-publish. But if you haven’t honed your skills, it’s probable your book is not ready for self-publishing.

Many times attendees are frustrated because:

  • They attend the wrong conference at the wrong time in their sojourn from first draft to publishing. They may be looking for an agent before their novel is complete or their sample chapters and proposals for their nonfiction book are written.
  • They have unrealistic goals for the conference.
  • Their expectations for what a conference will provide are too narrow or too broad.

It’s not just an issue for first-timers or newbies. When seasoned authors are surprised at how involved they need to be in the promotion of their own books, I am convinced anew of the need for conferences. It’s difficult to come away from most writers’ conferences without getting a handle on what a book requires to make it visible.

Conferences staged by large universities, writing schools, well-known magazines, or industry actors may give more up-to-date, accurate advice because they vet their presenters and can attract the most experienced writing instructors. An author should look at the credentials of a conference and its presenters before he registers; even a great conference may not be a match for your genre or level of expertise.

If you never attend a writers’ conference, you’ll miss out on:

  • A chance to learn about traditional and alternative publishing. If you aren’t well-advised, you will doubt your own choices when things go awry (and a few things always do).
  • All the writing secrets that seminars offer. You can’t hear a secret if you aren’t in the room.
  • Contacts with publishers, agents, and marketers you’re unlikely to meet elsewhere.
  • The greatest possible critique partners. Conference-goers tend to be excellent beta readers because they care enough to learn about their craft. If you don’t already have skilled critique partners, forming a new group should be one of your goals for a conference.
  • A chance to connect with one of the reputable agents in attendance.
  • The chance to practice your pitch and learn how a good one works.
  • Adding your attendance to your list of achievements in the query letter you send to agents and publishers. Having attended a respected conference is an indication of the investment you have made in your career.
  • Knowing what you missed – both the good and the bad.

Choosing a writers’ conference can be tricky. Many are expensive, and even free online conferences can take a lot of time. This is one occasion where it pays to be picky.

Determine your goals and choose a conference accordingly. Some focus on craft and often call themselves retreats, some offer seminars in book marketing, others tend to provide entrée to agents and publishers, some focus on the publishing business. Some do a little of everything.

More considerations include:

  • Location. Don’t choose one based on its exotic location unless your first interest is a vacation.
  • Critiques. If you choose a conference that offers a critique of your work by publishers or agents for an additional fee, spend the extra money to participate. If you wait until later, you may have to kick in another full conference fee for the privilege.
  • Agents. If signing with an agent is what you’re really after, wait until your book or proposal is fine-tuned before you go to a conference.
  • Agents (part 2). If pitching an agent is your primary goal, be sure agents who specialize in your genre will be there by reviewing the conference website. Register for the conference early enough to be assured of getting an audience with the agent of your choice.

Determine the thrust of the conference when deciding. Because of proximity and prestige, UCLA has better access to Hollywood, which makes its conference one of the best for screenwriters. Other conferences have their own specialties.

If you want to spend time concentrating on your writing, consider a writers’ retreat rather than a conference. Examine the credentials of the conference presenters. If you write persona poems, you may want to study with a teacher who has had success writing that specific kind of poetry. A person who is interested in writing courtroom dramas will benefit from an instructor who has published in that genre.

Hint: Bring a small pouch of tools with you to conferences. I use a bag I received with an Estée Lauder gift-with-purchase and I pack color-coded pens, snub-nosed scissors (sharp ones may not get through airport security), a small roll of cellophane tape, paperclips, packing tape (in case I need to ship books or other materials home), lip balm, a hole puncher, breath mints, a tin of aspirin, elastic bands, Band-Aids, and medication. Don’t unpack this kit when you get home. You’ll need it in the future for other conferences, book signings, book fairs, and other promotional events.

You can use a conference to promote

Some conferences offer tables where participants can leave promotional handouts for their books or services. Before you leave home, find out if this opportunity exists. If the conference publishes a newsletter or journal, send the editor media releases as your career moves along.

Take your business cards to the conference, and if you have a published book, take custom bookmarks to give to attendees.

If you have an area of expertise that would interest a conference director for future or additional conferences or workshops, introduce yourself, keep your pitch short, and follow up later. And always record the names of fellow conference attendees and presenters who might give you endorsements for your book in the future.

Good luck!


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  1. Thanks Carolyn,
    You gave a ton of information!
    I’m looking forward to attending my next conference.
    Indeed, confernces are worth their weight in gold.


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