If you’ve never been to a writing conference before, I can give you one piece of advice right now: prepare to be overwhelmed. That’s how I felt when I attended my first writing conference, the AWP Annual Conference in Boston. There seemed to be no limit to the panels to attend, authors and editors to meet, and off-site readings at which to imbibe.
In retrospect, I’m not sure I made the most of it — there was simply too much to do, and I came into the conference with no plan whatsoever. However, after much reflection, I’ve determined what I could have done better so I can make the most of the next writing conference I attend. I’m here today to share my conclusions so that you, too, can take advantage of the myriad opportunities writing conferences provide (and not have retrospective FOMO like I did).
Tip #1: Set your goals beforehand
Perhaps the most important thing to do before attending a conference is to figure out what you want out of it. This is partly so you can make the most of the conference, and also partly so you can choose the right one in the first place! There are tons of different conference options out there, so picking one that aligns with your goals is key.
For example, if you’re a fiction writer looking to finish a piece of work, the workshop model of Sewanee Writers’ Conference would be an excellent choice. But if your manuscript is already finished and you’re looking for professionals or publishing knowledge, The Muse and the Marketplace might be better.
Once you’re at your chosen conference, keep your focus in mind. Whether this is generating more work, meeting editors, or gathering inspiration from the talks, you should always be working toward a concrete goal or set of goals. It can be easy to go into “vacation mode” at a conference, but remembering your goal(s) will give you the motivation to actually work. And trust me: you’ll be grateful later that you didn’t spend the whole weekend lounging by the pool.
Tip #2: Be prepared for anything
This tip applies mainly to the conference itself, but being prepared starts as early as registration! Some writing conferences sell out quickly, so it pays to register ASAP — plus many conferences offer a discount if you register early.
After you’re signed up, create a conference plan. Look at the schedule and come up with a personalized agenda that will keep you busy, but won’t send you running around like crazy. Do a bit of research on who’s who, especially the lecturers you plan on seeing; you never know with whom you might rub shoulders. On that note, try to memorize your “elevator pitch” as well — just a two-to-three sentence summary of what you’re working on currently. This will keep you from fumbling for words when that opportune moment arises.
And of course, thorough preparation naturally means bringing along essential materials. Take a backpack with a folder, notebook, at least two pens, business cards, and copies of your book’s written synopsis or first chapter if you have it available. You’ll also accumulate a lot of free stuff (yay conference swag!), so having a larger bag to carry it all could end up being a lifesaver.
Tip #3: Reach outside of your comfort zone
While it’s important to create goals that you can meet comfortably, it’s also good to think of ways you might broaden your horizons at a writing conference. This is certainly one of the things I regret about my first conference experience; I accomplished most of what I set out to do, but I hardly tried anything new or different, despite the plethora of unique opportunities.
To that end, you should always be thinking of potential ways to step outside your comfort zone during a conference — not so much that you end up super-stressed, but enough that you can later think, “Wow, I’m proud of myself for doing that!” For example, if you’re an introvert, you should try networking with strangers for an hour or two. Or if you normally write short fiction, you might attend a poetry panel discussion and then attempt to write some poetry of your own.
Remember, there are so many opportunities at writing conferences: critiques, panels, workshops, book fairs, one-on-ones, and more! You never know what kind of inspiration you’ll find or where you’ll find it, but there’s no better place to explore your options.
Tip #4: Connect with different people
If you’re anything like me, making the first move to talk to a stranger may be hard; however, it’s an absolute conference essential. It also might be tempting to only talk to professionals, but other authors can offer valuable experience and insights too.
Again, this is a great challenge for my fellow introverts, as the connections you forge at a conference could change the trajectory of your entire career! For instance, you might talk to an amazing designer who offers you a discount on their services, and you’re finally able to afford a dream cover for your book. Or you talk to an author who gives you a revelatory piece of advice that helps you untangle a difficult plot issue. You may even meet an acquiring editor for a publisher and snag yourself a contract!
Needless to say, the social anxiety that accompanies interacting with strangers can be pretty daunting, but the benefits are totally worth it. So make a goal of talking to at least one new person a day — after all, you all have writing in common, which usually makes for a great conversation starter.
Tip #5: Follow up after a few days
Even once you’ve left a conference, there are still plenty of opportunities to reap its rewards — mostly when it comes to retaining those valuable professional connections. That said, give people (and yourself) a day or two to decompress after the conference before you reach out. In addition to re-introductory emails, it’s also a nice touch to send some thank you emails, whether to a panelist who offered great advice, a staff member who helped you out, or a professional who offered to be your beta reader.
Keep in mind that if you start attending conferences regularly, you’ll likely run into a lot of the same people — and a little bit of courtesy goes a long way to helping them remember you in a positive light! On a related note, it might be reassuring to know that the more conferences you attend, the easier it gets. You’ll know how things run, execute your goals with greater ease, and effortlessly maintain those long-term relationships.
Writing conferences offer limitless inspiration and opportunities, and with these tips in mind, you’ll be well equipped to take advantage of what these writerly havens have to offer. So have go forth, network, and enjoy!
About The Author
Tess Patalano is a poet, teacher, and freelance writer. She’s written a number of pieces for Reedsy, the world’s best resource hub and marketplace for self-publishing authors. If you missed that AWP conference, but you’re still hoping to hire an editor in Boston (or anywhere else), you can sign up to meet them on Reedsy today.