My Two Cents

How to Get the Most out of a Writers’ Conference

by Dec 6, 2011Craft, Reviews

You’ve signed up for a writers’ conference. You’ve paid your money. Here’s how to get the most value for those hard-earned bucks.

Decide what your priorities are.   Writers attend writers’ conferences for many reasons (see last week’s post, “Seven Reasons to Attend a Writers’ Conference” for a few.) You may have more than one reason for attending – figure out what your reasons are and which is first priority, because that is where you should focus your efforts, and around which you should plan your schedule.

Review the online information early – to discover things you might need to do ahead of the conference. For example:

  • registering separately for any sessions (pre-conference workshops, appointments with agents or editors)
  • submitting work in advance for critiques
  • signing up as a volunteer
  • booking a hotel room and making travel arrangements, especially if conference rates might be available.

If learning about the craft is your priority –

  • study the schedule, and identify the sessions you want to attend
  • if those sessions require advance registration, do it early to avoid disappointment
  • decide if you will participate in the “first pages” session – and if so, prepare your submission: double space the text, polish the pages, make them sing (if you aren’t familiar with the first pages panel, there’s a short discussion here)
  • if you also plan to book an appointment with an agent or editor, and if you can control the timing (SIWC — reviewed here — permits you to book your own appointments, for example), schedule it for a time slot that doesn’t conflict with your top picks for craft seminars, and
  • selecting and polishing your work also applies to “blue-pencil” or critique sessions for which you register; make sure your work is formatted in accordance with the guidelines; proof-read it, correct typos and spelling mistakes; you want to make it as easy as possible for the reviewer to assess your writing, so don’t let stupid errors get in the way.

If your priority is pitching –

  • study the conference rules about pitches – how many appointments can you book in advance? Do you have to pay for extra appointments? Can you book additional appointments at the conference? Can you pitch with an incomplete manuscript?
  • check out the agents and editors available; review their bios and websites to learn what type of work they are interested in hearing about; if your genre is on their “do not pitch me with this” list, then do not pitch them (you’re just wasting your time); make a note of the agents/editors that want to see your type of work, and try to secure an appointment with one or more of those individuals
  • if you are pitching non-fiction, expect the agent or editor to ask you about your platform (your profile, online presence, expertise related to the subject matter of your book), so be ready with that information
  • do a bit of research on how to pitch – there are many resources online that will tell you how (for example, Author! Author!, Anne Mini’s excellent blog, has several posts about pitching)
  • if the conference offers a “pitch-party” session where you can practice your pitch, sign up
  • if the conference offers appointments with a “pitch doctor”, sign up
  • show up a few minutes early for your appointments, do not run overtime, and be gracious
  • organize the balance of your time at the conference around your pitch appointments.

Take gobs of notes. Take pen and paper, or your laptop, to the conference. Make notes of all the sessions. Pick up handouts. If the presenter invites the audience to email for handouts or slides, make a note and follow up.

Meet people. Introduce yourself to the people at your table during meals, or seated beside you in a seminar. Be friendly. If you’re shy and have a difficult time initiating conversations, at least smile at people. Take part in events after the formal sessions, hang out in the bar or coffee shop, enjoy spending time with people who enjoy doing the same thing you do – writing. You will come away from the conference with many, many new friends and contacts. And this is a good thing, because you will be on your way to developing a supportive community that will help you in untold ways with your writing.

Stay at the conference site, if possible. Failing that, find ways to participate in the evening events. (I like to stay at the hotel so that I don’t have to drive long distances at night. I made the mistake of not booking in to the hotel for the Surrey International Writers’ Conference and regretted it. Partly because of the traffic. But primarily because I missed much of the socializing, which is a huge part of any conference.)

Buy books, get them signed. Frequent the bookstore at the conference. Support the presenters by buying their books that interest you. Get them signed by the authors. If you enjoy their books, tell them. They will appreciate your comments, perhaps more than you expect.

Give praise where deserved. If you enjoy a presentation, tell the presenter after the session. If you think something at the conference is particularly well done, tell the organizers if you bump into them. Yes, there are evaluation forms, and you should complete those too, but a positive comment given in person means much more.

Complain in private. If you have a gripe, either save it for the evaluation form, or seek out an organizer and ask for a private word. 

Feel free to leave a comment and share your tips for squeezing maximum enjoyment and value out of a conference!


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