Kate Ristau, executive director of Willamette Writers in Portland, Oregon, believes in the power of the Zoom breakout room to build literary community. She witnessed it firsthand this past August at the Willamette Writers Conference online.
“Usually at a conference, you walk into a banquet hall and get your food and worry about what table to choose before a presentation,” Ristau says. “This year, we had breakout rooms before every keynote, and we got to meet all sorts of new people. I assigned volunteers into each room to make the conversation flower easier, and people loved it. We created all these situations for discussion and networking, community building and friendship.”
Across the world, social distancing in response to the coronavirus pandemic has forced in-person annual writing conferences to move online. While it can be a daunting transformation (just exactly how do you host a fun and lively cocktail hour with 100+ people on a Zoom chat?), directors and presenters and attendees are finding remote literary events possess distinct advantages – as long as they think through logistics well ahead of time and plan accordingly.
Best practices for conference staff
Ristau and her staff knew they needed to get attendees acclimated to the Zoom platform well ahead of the three-day conference. “We practiced bringing attendees on for parties and coffee talks and chapter meetings, getting them used to the platform so that when they came into conference sessions, there wasn’t a barrier to participating.”
Along with the traditional workshops and panels and keynotes at the conference, the event also included remote morning yoga sessions, social hours, films, and literary salons, and drop-in critiques of everything from query letters and chapter synopses to first pages of novels and poetry.
Amy Rivers, who directs the Northern Colorado Writers Conference (see Conference Insider on pg. 40), says the organizers who have been most successful in transitioning to an online format integrate live and pre-recorded events and provide various ways to access materials along with a great deal of variety in presentations.
“In an in-person conference, you make choices about how you’re spending your time. In a virtual event, one downfall is getting stuck in front of your computer so that it feels like all you’re doing is sitting,” she explains. She discovered a very different experience while attending a conference on homeschooling over the summer, on a platform that allowed attendees to watch videos, download supplemental material, and interact with other participants.
“The instructors led you through the process like you were being ushered along from room to room in a conference space. It didn’t feel like you were sitting in front of your computer the whole time, zoning out to whatever pre-recorded thing has happened in front of you,” she says.
One of the biggest advantages of remote conferences is accessibility for those with physical, emotional, and/or financial barriers to attending the live events. Ristau describes a friend with an illness that keeps him home from most events. “This year, he was able to attend so many online,” she says.
Recorded events are vital for those who can’t attend a conference in real time, and staff can put them on YouTube and enlist the automatic captioning feature so that members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community can access workshops and panels and keynotes as well. But what about online events in real time?
Staff at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Conference wanted to make sure that their remote event in May 2020 was accessible to all participants. To that end, they offered live closed-captioning and closed-captioning recordings for all panels, talks, and the awards ceremony, simultaneous Spanish translation, audio-only engagement, and alt text for images.
Conference staff interested in making their real-time events accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing writers can hire a live captioning provider. Writer Courtney Craven, who is hard of hearing, explains that there are companies that offer pools of people available to live caption events: Staff can contact an organization like the National Captioning Institute, for example, and request a captioning provider for specific dates and times.
“Accessibility sells,” says Craven, who also runs the gaming-accessibility review site Can I Play That? “Disabled Americans have $490 billion in disposable income, and we want to spend it on things that support us.”
Best practices for instructors
Author Jack El-Hai recently led a virtual workshop titled “The Idea Machine” for The Loft Literary Center, in which he taught participants how to evaluate and develop story ideas across genres through in-class exercises. He hoped to generate spirited discussion among participants – a goal that can be challenging in virtual writing workshops.
“People are comfortable in their home surroundings, more inclined to sit back and just listen, and hobbled and sometimes intimidated by the technology,” he explains. “Also, with all the distractions on and off their screen, their attention span is diminished. Active discussions are a big part of keeping remote students engaged.”
El-Hai found that encouraging students to ask questions of each other, rather than expressing opinions and editorial suggestions on the work presented, kept the online discussion interesting and avoided the awkwardness of just one participant holding forth at length. “Questions are simply more helpful to writers trying to figure out what their writing is about and how to focus their work,” he says.
He asks students at the start of each online class to let him know what specific skills they’d like to learn and what particular questions they’d like answered – a technique that helps to hold participants’ attention as they anticipate receiving answers to their questions.
El-Hai says he has mixed feelings about the chat feature on Zoom. It’s a good place to post related links and comments, he notes, but sometimes the conversations in the chat box are more active than what’s going on in the actual class. “It’s like students talking to one another in the back of a real classroom,” he says. “I have sometimes asked participants to move their chat exchanges to the live virtual discussion to see what the whole class thinks of their points.”
Ristau has suggestions for presenters as well. She’s skeptical of PowerPoint presentations, which can overwhelm attendees with a great deal of information on a small screen. “But do give participants a clear outline so that they know what they’re getting into, along with handouts ahead of time,” she says.
Staff asked Willamette Writers Conference instructors to upload handouts to Dropbox. They also assigned two moderators to each presentation – volunteers who monitored the chat and helped out if someone experienced technical difficulties. “One person worked with the instructor, and one person worked with attendees,” Ristau explains. “We also had tech support running for the entire conference – one person on a Mac, and one person on a PC.”
Inevitably during a remote conference, tech problems happen. Sound distorts, video freezes, and people lose internet connection. For optimal audio quality, Ristau urges presenters to use a headset or mic instead of a computer’s built-in mic. If you’re sitting in a large, empty room, she suggests putting a cushion behind the laptop to reduce echo and make it easier for participants to hear. “Close all the tabs you don’t need on your computer,” she says, “because they use so much bandwidth. And move close to your wireless router or plug directly into your internet.”
Best practices for participants
Ristau urges participants to mute themselves if they’re not talking, so that others won’t be distracted by children or pets or smartphones in the background. It’s all right to turn off your camera if you need a break, she says.
Writers who want to be camera-ready from the moment a workshop begins should consider a tidy neutral background and natural light or a lamp with a white or daylight-colored bulb a foot or so in front of the computer screen. If you appear washed out, adjust your screen brightness so that it’s brighter (try opening a blank Word document) and turn off your overhead light. Set your laptop on a stack of books so that your camera is slightly above eye-level for a more pleasing appearance.
Author Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam, founder of the website Creative Writing News, participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program remote workshop in 2020. She found that the online format provided a greater sense of freedom to share work and experiences. “Remote conferences have that advantage over physical conferences,” she says. “You can be yourself and not be scared that the other writers will judge you when you share an opinion or ask a question. It’s easier to feel comfortable behind the screen.”
She appreciates how breakout rooms online allow for intimate interactions between introverted writers who might otherwise remain silent. “Anyone who has ever attended an in-person conference knows that the most boisterous personalities get all the attention. Only their voices will get heard and, often, acknowledged,” she explains. “Breakout sessions often include fewer people. And in most cases, everyone is given the same length of time to share a bit about themselves and their work. A reclusive writer is likely to feel comfortable in a breakout session because they know that they are free to air their opinions.”
Ristau encourages conference participants to take advantage of online social events – activities like “Speed Friending,” which gave attendees at the Willamette Writers Conference five minutes to meet each other in a breakout room before staff moved them to another room. “We did that six times and then brought everyone back together and let them all have a conversation,” Ristau says. “Then, we allowed them to move through breakout rooms themselves and started playing some games. It was great.”
Lark Sontag advises conference participants to take advantage of conference-related Twitter events and chats. A child development theorist and author of the children’s picture book What Every Child Should Know, she attended the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Summer Conference online and appreciated the ways in which staff incorporated social media. “Hashtags are extremely useful,” she says. “SCBWI did a great job at changing presenting formats and also mixing it up with some Twitter events.”
Learning opportunities abound
Rivers of the Northern Colorado Writers Conference is excited about the possibilities that online education and networking provide. “Right now, it’s really easy to feel daunted in the middle of this pandemic and crisis and social unrest,” she says. “My organization is focusing on the experience as a learning opportunity, an opportunity to grow and reach out, and really work on building and strengthening our writing community.”
Ristau knows that regardless of social distancing protocols in August 2021, she and her staff will create the Willamette Writers Conference as a hybrid event. “We don’t know what next year looks like,” she says. “We’re just going to try and connect with our community. The remote conference worked really well.”
—Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Web: melissahart.com. Originally Published