GLVWG’s Donna Brennan offers some advice for getting the most out of the Write Stuff Conference™.
No matter where you are in your writing journey, attending a writers conference is a good way to improve your craft and network with others interested in the publishing field, including editors, agents, and fellow writers.
Let’s face it, conferences can be expensive, and they take time away from family, other responsibilities, and of course, writing. The cost—in money, time, and travel—is usually a good investment. Here are some tips for getting the most out of that investment.
Choose Your Conference Wisely
There are a lot of conferences out there, and new ones seem to be added every year. But not all writer’s conferences are right for every writer.
Some things to consider when choosing which conference to attend:
- Focus/Genre: This one should be obvious, but it isn’t always. If you write in a specific genre, pay more attention to conferences with a focus on that genre. However, general writing conferences may have some workshops that would very beneficial to you, so don’t rule them out. Read descriptions of the sessions offered and find a conference that cover the topics and content important to you.
- Presenters/appointments: Check out who the presenters will be. Just because you haven’t heard of them doesn’t mean they aren’t good, but do your homework and google their names. What do they write? Do they speak often? Do they have a blog? Has anyone else blogged about attending a session by this person? Have they been interviewed?
- Appointments: Are agent or editor appointments available? Research who those agents and editors are. See if they represent or publish the type of things your write. What about marketing appointments? Go to those folks’ websites and see if they are someone you could learn from.
- Skill Level: Some conferences are geared toward beginner writers. Some are for the more seasoned writer. Many have a mixture, with sessions geared for different levels of experience or sessions that can benefit writers wherever they are along their writing path. Make sure the conference you attend isn’t way above or way below your skill level.
- Cost: This is more than just the cost of the conference; it includes the cost of getting to the conference and possibly staying at a hotel. Local conferences will have lower travel expenses, but if your ideal conference is on the other side of the country, it might be worth the trip.
- Timing: Not just when the conference is, but how many days. Maybe you can get away from work for one day, or maybe you can afford to take off a full week. Maybe you can only attend a weekend conference. Maybe you need to coordinate your schedule with your spouse to make sure someone is around to take care of the kids and get them to their activities. It may be hard, but definitely worth the effort if your writing is important to you.
Read the sessions descriptions. Decide ahead of time which ones you want to attend and plan your schedule. Write it down so you don’t forget. It so easy, in the whirl of activities at most conferences, to look at the names of the sessions and not remember the descriptions or why you had preferred one over another.
However, if you sit in a session earlier in the day and you enjoy a particular presenter’s style or message (or you don’t enjoy it), you might want to think about attending (or avoiding) another session given by the same speaker. As long as the conference permits it, allow yourself the freedom to change your plans.
If you have an agent or editor appointment, be certain to prepare for that meeting. An earlier blog post on this site will help you do just that.
For networking purposes, you might want to have business cards printed out. If you already have business cards, be sure to bring them with you.
Check the conference website to see if they have a recommended or required dress code. Most conferences seem to be business casual (or even just casual) dress, but many require dressing up for a banquet or other special event.
One things that’s often overlooked is getting enough rest before you attend a conference. You want your brain to be fully rested to take in as much new information as possible, and you want your body to be fully rested because some conferences have late evening and early morning sessions. You won’t want to miss attending anything important or fun, and you want to be able to be fully engaged.
What to Bring
Bring something to use to take notes. Paper and pen/pencil work well, but often at conference people bring small laptops or electronic notepads to take notes. The problem with that is some conferences have classroom style seating (with tables and chairs) and others have theater style seating (with rows of seats, and no tables). A paper notebook will work in both those settings, but it’s not as easy to use a keyboard on your lap—and some keypads make noise that might disturb those around you. Also, electronic devices have a limited battery supply, and there might not be available outlets near your seat.
Some conferences have stacks of magazine samples and submission guidelines. If you’re interested in taking some of these home, bring a tote bag to put them in. You can also keep your notebook and pens in there.
Most conferences have water or coffee stations, but you might want to bring a bottle of water just in case. You can keep that in your tote bag as well. A few hard candies or mints might come in handy in case your throat gets a little sore or raw. If you think you might get hungry, throw a small snack in your tote bag as well.
Sometimes conference rooms can be too hot, other times they are too cold—often in the same day or even the same session. If you tend to get uncomfortable with uncertain or unstable room temperatures, it’s a good idea to wear a thin or short sleeved shirt and to bring a light jacket or sweater.
If you have an agent or editor appointment, bring a one-sheet and a bulleted list of topics to help you remember what you want to say.
And don’t forget to bring your business cards if you have them. Conferences are about networking; handing out and collecting cards makes the process easier.
While You’re There
Yes, you are at the conference to learn, but you should also take time to enjoy the event. Enjoy the sessions; enjoy the food; enjoy the people.
Writers have a reputation for being solitary beings living in our writing caves and rarely coming out to mingle with others. Honestly, many “normal” people don’t understand us writers. Be sure to take full advantage of being with other people who share many of the same fears, dreams, frustrations, and joys as you do. Be sure to hand out your cards to folks you’d like to keep in touch with, and ask them for theirs.
This might also be a good time to find folks for a critique group. If you meet others who write in a similar genre or with whom you get along, ask if they already belong to a critique group. If they do, maybe you can join. If they don’t, maybe you can start one up. If they live too far away for in person meetings, consider forming an online critique group.
Many presenters have handouts for their sessions. Many others don’t. In order to help you remember what you learn, it’s a good idea to take notes. But don’t be so busy taking notes that you miss much of what’s being said.
Some conferences or speakers sell recordings of their sessions. Consider buying these recordings if you find a session particularly helpful. If the conference isn’t selling recordings and you plan to make your own, you should ask permission first. Some speakers don’t want to be recorded while others don’t care. And in some states it’s illegal to record other people without their consent.
If you feel yourself getting stressed or overwhelmed, give yourself permission to take a break. All is not lost if you sit out a session or two. And the break may help you get that much more out of the next session.
Lots of conferences have book fairs—either the entire time or a certain day and time. Be sure to browse the tables for good books on craft. You can ask other writers which books helped them—and which books didn’t.
After You Leave
If you met with an agent or editor and they told you to send them something, be sure you send it!
If you met other writers and exchanged cards or emails, send them a little message saying how much you enjoyed meeting with them. If you planned to form a critique group, don’t put it off too long or it will never happen.
Read through your notes and the handouts while the conference and talks are still fresh in your mind. If you wait two months you might not remember what the things you wrote mean. In fact, as you read through your notes, if you remember something you didn’t write down, write it down now. If you have recording of the sessions, listen to those recordings with your notes in front of you, jotting down any additional details you wish to include.
If you bought books at the book fair, start reading those books. Take notes on the books too, if it helps.
But most important, get busy writing. And don’t forget to apply what you’ve just learned to your work in progress.
Article written by Donna Brennan
Donna Brennan was a technical writer for over ten years before becoming a computer programmer. Since leaving the corporate world after her twins were born, she’s had numerous short stories, interviews, and nonfiction articles published online and in print magazines including Thriving Family, Encounter, Splickety, and Christian Fiction Online Magazine. She’s a member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (GLVWG). She’s served in various capacities on the GLVWG board, including two terms as Conference Chair. She’s always looking for opportunities to encourage others and to share what she’s learned.