A writing conference is a perfect mix of all the ingredients you need to grow as a writer. It doesn’t matter if you are just beginning or have a thriving writing career; a good conference provides everything, and it all happens over the span of a few days.
Conferences offer the opportunity to attend sessions to improve your writing, learn strategies about the business of writing, be inspired by bestselling authors, connect with industry experts, talk shop with other writers, pitch to agents, and stay current on what is happening in the world of writing and publishing.
There are many great writing conferences around the country, but that doesn’t mean they are all a good fit for you. Finding the writing conference that meets your goals can take some time but will be worth it in the long run.
Writing Conferences: The Impact of the Pandemic
The pandemic changed writing conferences. Initially in 2020, the events were either canceled or shifted online. Then, as we moved through the pandemic, conference directors had to rethink their approaches. People were used to staying home, and most of the country became proficient at using Zoom and other online meeting platforms.
Writing organizations and conference directors are determined and passionate about supporting writers and knew they needed to adjust how they staged events and connected to their audience.
Kate Ristau, executive director of Willamette Writers in Washington, quickly pivoted in 2020 and offered an all-virtual conference that year. Her organization also understood how fragile everyone’s emotional health was at that time, deepening the need for writers to stay connected.
“During the height of the pandemic, we gathered volunteers for a Care Team to just check in on people — to make sure they were able to get online, get connected, and that they were safe and felt supported. While our conference community gathers once a year, we have programming year-round. We moved our in-person workshops online and started focusing on how we could connect with people through Zoom, Facebook Groups, and emails.”
Amy Rivers, director of Writing Heights Writing Association based in Colorado, also adjusted quickly. “My organization was able to pivot successfully, focusing on what we could do — classes, workshops, readings, all online — instead of what we couldn’t. One surprising result was that more of our members were able to participate, eliminating location and mobility as obstacles. We shifted our focus to a long-term hybrid model and gained members and conference attendees from as far away as New Zealand.”
Ristau also came to a similar conclusion, and now she plans to continue making Willamette Writers Conference a hybrid event this year and into the future, with both in-person and virtual options available. “On an organizational level, it helps us bring in more agents, editors, and producers whose busy schedule makes it hard for them to travel. On a personal level, it also helps us offer reduced registrations for writers. While the cost of an in-person registration can be more expensive, the virtual registrations are more accessible, both economically and geographically. We will continue to offer these options for the members of our community who are in high-risk communities or prefer to attend online instead of in person.”
In Person or Online
It used to be that the only decision you had to make regarding conferences was whether or not you could go. Now that many writing conferences are hybrid, there is the added decision of attending in person or online. In the past, one big reason to attend a conference was to connect with other writers and industry professionals. Conference organizers understand this, and most make a point to incorporate community-building activities (and sometimes these even begin weeks before the conference date), even for those attending online.
Ristau says, “We’ve learned a lot these last few years, and one of the most important things is this: community matters. Whether we’re using Zoom, Facebook, or a phone call, technology can help us connect with each other to share our stories and support our writing lives.”
Online conferences expand the opportunities available to writers. Location, budget, and health-related restrictions no longer present the barriers they once did. And many times the sessions are recorded for you to revisit after the event is over.
Choose the Best Writing Conference for You
Most states have writing organizations that host annual conferences, and a quick Google search can usually find that information. Here are also a few websites that list conferences around the country.
Not all conferences will be a good fit for you, so research and find the ones that offer what you are looking for. Before committing to attend a conference, think about your goals. What do you plan to achieve with your writing in the coming year, and which conference’s can best help you accomplish your goals?
- Are you new to writing and are exploring all aspects of writing and publishing to get a solid foundation?
- Are you seeking to traditionally publish?
- Is your goal to make connections in the industry?
- Do you already have books published and need to improve your marketing?
- Do you want to improve your writing?
The list could go on and on. The bottom line is to understand your reasons for attending and what you intend to get from the event. Knowing this will help you make an informed decision because you can weed out the conferences that don’t fit your goals.
What is Included in a Writing Conference?
An in-person conference can be a big investment, especially if you plan to travel to a different state. There are the conference registration fee, travel expenses, food, and other incidentals.
When looking for a conference, don’t let the first price you see influence your decision. Delve deeper to see what is included with that price. Are meals included? Do agent/editor pitch sessions come with the registration fee? How about critiques or special workshops? Sometimes the price looks almost too good to be true, and when you look closer, it is.
For instance, you might have narrowed your search to two conferences that are both three days. Initially, one appears less expensive, but when you look more closely, you see that there are additional fees for meals, pitch sessions, and a workshop you want to attend. The other conference includes all these items. By researching further, you find both conferences are comparable in price. Now, it’s a matter of deciding which best meets your needs.
Access to Industry Professionals
Having a chance to talk with professionals in the industry and ask them questions is a definite perk to investing in an in-person writing conference. Check into what opportunities are available at the event, like cocktail hours and mealtimes. Some conferences have presenters assigned to tables at mealtimes, so you can choose which table you want to sit at. These are ideal times to start up casual conversations with the agents, editors, or presenters and make a connection (this is not a time to pitch your book idea, though, unless asked).
Selection of Workshops
Whether you are attending a writing conference in person or virtually, pay close attention to the workshops offered. Think back to your original goals for attending the conference. If your focus is on the business side of publishing, are there plenty of sessions related to this topic that fit with your plan? Research the presenters to see what they write and their levels of expertise. Even though you have your specific focus, also sprinkle in some other sessions where you can explore different areas of writing.
If having the opportunity to pitch your book idea to an agent or editor face-to-face is important to you, find writing conferences where this is offered. It can be a definite plus if you have a completed manuscript or book proposal and are seeking representation. Note that even though a conference is happening in person, pitch sessions may take place live via Zoom with the agent or editor. This is still a great opportunity; just understand how the event handles the pitches. Research each editor or agent to make sure at least one represents your genre before deciding if this is the right conference for you.
A big-name author can be a huge draw, but I caution you not to base your decision on this factor alone. Many times, the keynote speaker comes in, does their talk, and then leaves after a book signing. This is only about one hour out of the whole event, so make sure the rest of the conference lives up to the hype of the one speaker.
How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference
Many writers hear the word network and want to find the nearest couch to hide under. After all, our writing time is spent alone with only our thoughts, made-up worlds, and characters to keep us company. Approaching strangers to start a conversation can be downright intimidating.
With a little preparation, meeting new people or introducing yourself to your favorite author doesn’t have to be scary. Learn what you can about the different presenters. Visit their websites, find out more about their writing, and follow them on social media. Then, if you can visit with them during a cocktail hour or meal, you will know a little bit about them and already have some topics to discuss.
Another tip for easing the discomfort of networking is to have a few standard questions ready to go. People generally like to talk about themselves, so ask about their family, job, and what they like to do for fun when they are not writing. One great phrase to use is, “Tell me about…” This way, you don’t have to ask questions that seem intrusive, like, “Are you married?” Instead, you can say, “Tell me about your family.”
Ristau says the most important person you meet might not be at the front of the room; they might be sitting right next to you at a workshop or at a meal. “Your fellow attendees will become your colleagues and your friends,” she says. “Yes, the keynotes and presenters are inspirational and very cool, but don’t forget the people sitting right next to you. They are the ones who will be taking this journey beside you.”
2. Be Professional
Publishing is a business, but writing is an intimate and creative act that draws from the deepest parts of us. When it comes time to publish, your focus needs to shift from your writing being your “baby” to a commodity you are looking to sell. Dress and carry yourself like a professional. You don’t necessarily have to wear a business suit, but you should dress like you take your writing seriously and understand that publishing is a business.
3. Keep an Open Mind
Writing conferences are a great time to step out of your comfort zone and expand your writing horizons. Keep an open mind with the sessions you attend, the people you meet, and the activities you participate in. If you can let go of preconceived ideas and expectations, especially if you have been writing for a while, you will get more from the event. Rivers says, “Sometimes we’re so busy thinking about what we already know that we close ourselves off from what we might learn. Writers are fascinating people, and being around them at conference time can be transformative in so many ways.”
Most of the time, you can find at least one gold nugget of information from a session or conversation with someone. If you go in with narrow expectations, you might miss those. Also, attend sessions or talks outside your regular genre. If you write sci-fi, attend something on romance, or if you write nonfiction, attend a craft class on writing effective dialogue. You will be surprised at what you can learn.
4. Follow Up
At the events, exchange business cards with people you meet and want to stay connected with. When the writing conference is over, reach out to them with an email to touch base and initiate a conversation. If you pitch to agents or editors, send them a quick email telling them you enjoyed meeting them and remind them what you talked about or did when you met in order to refresh their memory, since you weren’t the only person they met.
If you pitched a manuscript to an agent or editor, and they requested you send pages or the full manuscript, get that to them within a week or two. This keeps you and your book idea at the top of the agent or editor’s mind. In the subject line of the email or in the initial introduction, remind them you met at the conference, and they requested this material.
5. How to Pitch to an Agent/Editor (In Person or Online)
If you plan to pitch to an agent or editor at the event, here are some things to keep in mind that will help you prepare and make the most of this opportunity.
6. Preparing Your Pitch
Angie Hodapp, director of literary development, has been with Nelson Literary Agency for 12 years and participates in many writing conferences, taking pitches on behalf of the agency. As you prepare your pitch, she suggests understanding what she calls “The Big Five.”
- Who is your hero? (Character.)
- What do they want? (Goal.)
- Why do they want it? (Motivation.)
- Why can’t they have it? (Conflict.)
- What happens if they don’t get it? (Stakes.)
You have a limited amount of time, so you are not there to give a synopsis of the full story. Lead with a few sentences about the story with the hope it will initiate a conversation. Don’t spend the time talking about the world, characters, or how you became a writer; talk about the story (this includes memoir). For nonfiction, share the topic you cover and how it differs from others currently on the market.
Hodapp says distilling your story and talking about it is a necessary skill for writers. When you pitch, you are basically applying for the job of professional writer.
“Preparing your pitch is not just a thing you do to get an agent,” she says. “A well-prepared pitch travels with the book all the way to the reader.” The agent will take this pitch to the editors, who will then take it to their teams to make the case for offering you a contract. Then the sales and marketing team will use it to get you into bookstores. “The better you do it, the better the chance it gets all the way into readers’ hands,” Hodapp says.
The pandemic made Zoom interactions more of the norm, and writing conference organizers have taken advantage of this. The travel expenses to bring in agents and editors can be expensive, and many conferences don’t have a big budget. By taking pitches over Zoom or other online platforms and alleviating those extra expenses, more conferences are able to offer these.
Just because you’re pitching over Zoom doesn’t mean you should take the opportunity lightly. You still need to present yourself as a professional, which includes what you wear (at least from the waist up). Hodapp has some tips to help you do this.
- Stabilize your computer. Put it on a solid surface while you pitch. Hodapp has spoken with people trying to balance their iPads on their laps during a pitch, and it makes for distractions when the background moves around.
- Have good lighting. Darkness or a lot of back lighting causing shadows on your face don’t create the professional look you want.
- Set the computer at an appropriate height. It should be at eye level or a little higher. No one wants to look up your nose.
- Look into the computer while pitching. If you need a few notes, tape them near your computer camera, so you are not looking down or turning your head to another monitor.
- Create a professional-looking background. Avoid using artificial backgrounds that can make your hands disappear when you move around.
Hodapp suggests going into the bathroom before you pitch and doing a power pose, like V for victory. “There’s actually science behind putting your body in that shape,” she says, “and it helps you breathe a little better and expend some of that nervous energy.”
Remember, most agents and editors at conferences are actively seeking new clients. They understand the emotional connection writers have to their work. They are not there to crush your spirit.
When it’s time to pitch, take a deep breath, start with your story, and show the agent what excites you about it. If they say “no thank you,” it is nothing personal or a reflection on your writing. It just means it wasn’t a good fit for them. Thank them for their time, and then find the next door to knock on.
Attending a good writing conference can put you ahead of the game by equipping you with the best skills, tools, and knowledge to create the successful writing life you always dreamed about. The people who organize writing conferences work hard to put together a memorable event from start to finish. I encourage you to participate in as much as possible (even if you attend online) and stay until the very end. You will be exhausted, and your head will be spinning from everything you learned and all the people you met, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Kerrie Flanagan is an author, writing consultant, and freelance writer from Colorado with over 20 years’ experience in the industry. She is a frequent contributor to The Writer and the author of WD Guide to Magazine Article Writing along with 19 other books. She moonlights in the world of sci-fi/fantasy with a coauthor under the pen name C.G. Harris (cgharris.net). Learn more about her and sign up for a writing services consultation at kerrieflanagan.com.