Conference Insider: UW-Madison Writers’ Institute

Attendees can find craft advice, camaraderie, and commercial success at this welcoming four-day event.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Retired Milwaukee firefighter Gregory Lee Renz attended the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute with an idea for a novel based on his work experience, taking first place in both fiction and nonfiction in the Institute’s 2015 writing contest. And then, after years of writing and revision, he sold his debut novel, Beneath the Flames (HenschelHAUS, 2019).

Renz represents one of many publishing success stories that have emerged from the Institute, now in its 30th year. The four-day event in Madison, Wisconsin, attracts people from all over the U.S. with workshops and discussions on craft, revision, marketing and publication, and promotion.

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“We have aspiring, emerging, and established writers,” says event director Laurie Scheer. “Even if you haven’t written a page yet – even if you just have an idea – you’re most welcome. There are so many opportunities to meet other writers, speakers, and agents or to simply attend and absorb information.”

What you’ll learn

Featured presenters at the institute include industry professionals such as author/blogger Jane Friedman and author/book coach Jennie Nash, author/diversity educator Donna Hart-Tervalon, and author/former New York City police officer Nick Chiarkas. Multi-genre author Jessica Lourey will deliver the keynote address on Friday.

The Institute offers two tracks for attendees – one that concentrates on the craft of writing and one that explores the various methods of publication. In 2019, instructors taught workshops in scene setting, outlining, plot development, podcasting, writing a book proposal, and navigating book festivals as a published author.

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Writers can take workshops on how to navigate racial and cultural differences in fiction and how to develop your voice, create suspense, and built worlds in a novel. They can learn the art of interviewing subjects for a book, how to write humor, and how to craft a series.

The Institute also offers “Pathway to Publication,” a six-month or yearlong program that allows participants to sign up for a mentorship with the goal of editing and polishing a manuscript to submit to literary agents and editors.

“We’ve found that when people leave the Institute, they’re excited, and they have a goal to keep writing, but two months later, all that enthusiasm drops off,” Scheer says. “Pathway to Publication allows writers to work with a mentor to set up goals. Maybe they haven’t written one page yet. Maybe they have 30,000 words written. Mentors work with them wherever they are to complete a project.”

Advice for first-time attendees

 Writers return again and again to the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, compelled by both educational opportunity and camaraderie with fellow attendees. “You work by yourself, and you don’t think other people are going through what you are,” Scheer explains. “But then you attend this event, and you meet all these other people with the same fears and hesitations, and you realize everyone’s in the same boat. It’s enlightening to experience that awareness.”

So enlightening, in fact, that writers at the institute find themselves forming long-term friendships with one another. “People become writing buddies,” Scheer says. “It’s a sort of ‘I’ll check on you, and you check on me’ situation, a camaraderie focused on writers helping writers.”

Renz says that attending the Institute each year feels like “going home where everyone gets you.” He’ll present a session at the 2020 conference about his journey to publication. The title: “If I Can Do It, So Can You.”

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Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart.