Writer Jennifer Mattson shares her top 10 must-go-to conferences for writers, taking conference size, geographical locations, topics and experience levels into account. No matter your background, your interests or your budget, there’s a conference on this list for you.
1. The Muse and the Marketplace
Grub Street, a writing center in Boston, holds its annual conference at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel for three days each spring. The weekend draws over 140 well-known authors, literary agents, editors and publishers. (Disclaimer: I teach online classes for Grub Street.)
Past faculty: Charles Baxter, Colum McCann, Roxane Gay
Why you should go: It’s a large conference with more than 800 people on some 100 panels. It’s a good choice if you’re looking to survey multiple sessions or want a conference aimed at all levels.
Highlights: The Muse draws a number of top New York agents and editors. For an extra fee, you can pitch them one-on-one by signing up for the popular Manuscript Mart. Don’t miss the Shop Talk Happy Hour for guaranteed face time with agents and editors if you’re looking to land a book deal.
2. The American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference (ASJA)
The ASJA conference is held each spring in New York City. Specifically aimed at freelance journalists and nonfiction authors, the conference attracts some 500-600 people each year. The two-day gathering focuses on helping independent writers survive and thrive as freelancers. Programs include pitch sessions with editors, agents and publishers. Can’t make it to NYC? Regional conferences are typically held in the summer and fall in places like Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Faculty: Speakers and attendees include editors and writers at The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Family Circle, BBC Travel, Inc.com, Fortune, Fast Company, The Atavist, Seal Press and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Why you should go: This is the best conference for freelance journalists and those interested in pursuing a career as an independent writer.
Highlights: Networking with editors and other freelancers who understand what it is like to work for yourself.
Where: New York City
When: April or May
3. San Francisco Writers Conference
SFWC spans four days and hosts over 100 sessions including panels, two keynote lunches, workshops, networking events, open mic readings and pitch sessions. You can pick from panels on everything from how to write a book, sell a book, get an agent or create a book proposal. The conference focuses primarily on the art of nonfiction and fiction books, but there are also panels on freelance and travel writing, to name a few.
Past faculty: Ann Packer, Jane Friedman, Annie Barrows
Why you should go: In addition to providing a great escape from mid-winter snow, this all-levels conference is ideal for first-time conference attendees looking to survey multiple panels.
Highlights: The conference always takes place at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, one of the jewels of San Francisco, located atop Nob Hill. The luxury hotel provides elegant breakfasts, keynote luncheons and a gala. Each night, the conference hosts a group dinner at a different restaurant around town. They cost extra but are a great way to meet other writers and the presenters.
Where: San Francisco
BinderCon is a professional development conference designed to empower women and gender nonconforming writers, authors and those in the media. An offshoot of the popular Facebook group Binders Full of Women, the main conference takes place in the fall in New York City with a second installment in Los Angeles each spring.
Past faculty: Lisa Kudrow, Jill Abramson, Anna Holmes, Leslie Jamison
Why you should go: You are a woman or identify as gender nonconforming and are interested in a writing conference that takes these issues into account.
Highlights: Drawing a lot of heavy hitters from the media world, including top women editors and agents, the conference abounds with the spirit of feminism. You’re sure to meet some inspiring women.
Where and when: November in New York; February in Los Angeles
5. Literary Writers Conference
A two-day conference for fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction writers “learning how to maneuver in the marketplace.” Hosted by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in conjunction with the National Book Foundation and The New School Graduate Writing Program, it attracts a number of prestigious editors, agents, publicists and publishers.
Past faculty: Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Galassi, Julie Barer, Gail Hochman, Renee Zuckerbrot
Why you should go: This is a serious conference for serious writers. Many panels include author-editor conversations, which are a fascinating listen for anyone interested in writing a book. Attendees are a mix of New School graduate students and mid-career New York writers looking for a book deal. It’s small enough that it doesn’t feel overwhelming and always has an impressive group of panelists.
Highlights: Agent speed dating. Each participant has the opportunity to sit down with two literary agents for eight minutes to pitch a book idea. Last year’s event featured agents from Brandt & Hochman, Zoë Pagnamenta Agency, Kuhn Projects, Fletcher and Co., Trident, Folio Literary Management, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency and Renée Zuckerbrot Literary Agency.
Where: New York City
6. San Miguel Writers’ Conference
This is a destination writers conference where the atmosphere is just as important as the conference. San Miguel de Allende, a small town in Mexico, is known for its artistic community of writers, painters, musicians, poets and philosophers. In recent years, more American artists have flocked here in the winter.
Past faculty: Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Sheehy, Elizabeth Hay, Scott Simon,
Why you should go: You have a sense of adventure and love the idea of mixing travel and writing. Perfect for those looking for an escape to Mexico during February.
Highlights: This conference draws famous media personalities in addition to some great faculty for the workshops. It is not just a literary conference but also a cultural experience. Don’t miss the live storytelling performances and the legendary fiesta. which Barbara Kingsolver has called “one of the 10 best parties I’ve ever attended in my life.”
Where: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
7. Sewanee Writers’ Conference
The longest event on this list, spanning 12 days, Sewanee is built on a workshop model. Each participant is assigned a workshop that meets every other day, combining lectures and informal exchanges. Each one is led by two faculty members, but attendees can also meet with faculty one on one. The focus of this conference is on finishing submitted work, not generating new pages.
2016 faculty: Jill McCorkle, Alice McDermott, Robert Hass, Mark Jarman, Sidney Wade, Naomi Iizuka and Dan O’Brien
Why you should go: This conference is great for those looking for an immersive workshop experience with room and board included.
Where: Sewanee, Tennessee
The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) was created in 1999 to address the lack of diversity in writing programs. The summer writing workshop offers two one-week sessions for up to 140 participants at the University of Miami. Workshops cover poetry, memoir and fiction as well as travel writing, speculative fiction, YA writing and playwriting. VONA also hosts regional weekend workshops aimed at specific issues.
2016 faculty: Tayari Jones, M. Evelina Galang, Willie Perdomo, Chitra Divakaruni, Minal Hajratwala
Why you should go: Those attending the multi-genre workshops tap into a larger community of support through the active VONA alumni network.
When: June and July
9. The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference
The oldest writers’ conference in America, and arguably the most prestigious, Bread Loaf was founded in 1926 by, among other notable names, Robert Frost.
Bread Loaf’s main conference runs 10 days each August and has been described as literary summer camp. But make no mistake: This is the big leagues. Last year alone, Bread Loaf received 2,100 applications for its 220 slots. Attendees study with one of 20 faculty members, each of whom offers a workshop. There are 10 workshops in fiction, seven in poetry and three in nonfiction. Each participant submits a manuscript, for which he or she gets feedback during the conference.
2016 faculty: Patricia Hampl, David Shields, Natasha Trethewey, Lynn Freed
Why you should go: If you are serious about networking with contemporary writers and making friends in the literary world, this conference is for you. The schedule is jam-packed and very social, energizing participants to go back home and write. Don’t miss the hayride, which is so popular it was featured in an episode of The Simpsons.
10. AWP Conference
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) is one of the largest and most popular writing conferences in the world. With more than 15,000 annual participants and 800 exhibitors, it’s more than a conference or book fair – it’s an event. AWP is an essential experience for writers, students, teachers and academics alike.
Faculty: Everyone. If a writer has a book out or teaches often, chances are he or she will be attending.
Why you should go: This massive four-day event features 550 readings, panels and craft lectures from 2,000 participants. Everyone should go to AWP at least once.
Where: Location changes each year.
When: Spring; usually March or April
Jennifer Mattson is a writer, journalist and online columnist at Psychology Today. A former producer for CNN and NPR, she teaches writing at NYU School of Professional Studies and leads workshops around the country.