How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference
Maybe you’re about to attend your first writing conference. Or maybe you’ve heard that writing conferences are essential for networking, growing in your craft, and building a career, so here you are, looking into it.
Either way, you’ve probably figured out that this type of literary event is a big commitment. At the very least, you’re investing precious time.
Most likely, you’ll have to spend some of your hard-earned dollars on this conference, too. And if you’re an introvert, I know you’re already thinking about the energy expense of spending two to four days with 300-2,000 strangers.
So how do you make sure this sizable investment pays off?
Excellent question! Let’s talk about that. We’ll go over:
- How to prepare for a writing conference
- How to get the most out of workshops, panels, and other sessions
- What it takes to build valuable connections with other industry professionals
- How and when to pitch your book to the folks you meet
- What to do after the conference to build on the connections you made and lessons you learned
As you’re about to discover, you’ve got a lot of prep work to do. So let’s hurry up and get into this.
Writing conferences are super fun. They’re also exhausting and overwhelming. The best way to make sure you don’t burn out or get distracted by events that won’t benefit your writing career is to do some pre-conference preparation.
That starts with selecting the right conference for your goals.
Researching and Selecting the Right Conference
You’ve got plenty of options when it comes to choosing a writers’ conference. (Peruse this handy list to see what’s out there.) These events vary in terms of content, focus, cost, and the kind of crowd they draw.
Here are some key factors to consider when deciding which conferences might be right for you:
Focus - Some conferences exist exclusively for writers of a specific genre. Some are geared toward helping you improve your craft while others center around the business of writing. Most conferences tend to focus more on either traditional or self-publishing career tracks.
Level of experience - Look at the schedule of events before committing to a conference. If you’ve been writing professionally for ten years and the sessions all have names like “Character Development 101” and “Intro to Story Structure,” that’s not your party.
Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned pro, make sure your chosen conference fits where you are in your writing career.
Cost - Can you afford to go to this conference? Don’t forget to factor in transportation, accommodations, meals, and any add-ons like pitch slams or banquets.
Legitimacy - Find out who’s running the conference, why they’re running it, and what past attendees have to say about the experience. If there’s a pitchfest element, make sure you won’t be pitching to vanity publishers, hybrid publishers, or anyone else who charges a fee for “advancing your career.”
Also note that some conferences share select sessions for free on YouTube or offer discounted digital tickets to attend livestreamed sessions online. These options give you the opportunity to test the waters before making a big financial commitment.
Setting Up Your Author Storefront
Long before the writing conference begins, start thinking about how you want to present yourself professionally. Consider things like:
Your author brand - Your brand is who you are as an author and why you write what you write. Are you all about contemporary love stories that celebrate the “wife and mother” as a romantic heroine? Are you a cozy mystery writer with a dry sense of humor and a reluctance to take anything too seriously?
Contact methods - Think about how you want people to get in contact with you after the event. Are you easy to find on social media? Do you need a dedicated author email address?
Platform - If you haven’t set up your author platform, now is a good time to get started. Create a website that includes your bio and information about your books, if you’ve published any. Maybe add a couple of blog posts or writing samples, too.
Establish an author account on your preferred social media platform so it’s easy for people to get in touch with you after and during the event. You can also use social media to build relationships before the writing conference even begins. Many conferences create Facebook groups for this very purpose.
Online presence audit - Now that you’ve clarified your author brand, do a quick review of your online presence and make sure your public persona aligns with the image you want to project.
Setting Goals and Expectations
You can’t do everything and meet everyone at a conference unless the event you’re attending is exceptionally small. This means you’ve got to go in with clear priorities.
The obvious goal might be something like “find a literary agent” or “land a book deal.” Those are perfectly understandable goals. They’re even possible outcomes. But for most writers, a conference is more likely to jumpstart a chain of events that lead to success in the long-term.
So don’t hesitate to dream big, but also consider:
- What kind of relationships you want to build (Are you looking for a mentor? Peers you can connect with creatively? Someone to do business with?)
- What kind of knowledge you want to gain
- Any specific people you’d like to meet
- Which sessions you absolutely do not want to miss
Keep your list of goals short and focused. When in doubt, ask yourself what the next step for your career would be. How can a writing conference get you to that place?
Now that all those deep questions are out of the way, let’s get packing! Here are some must-haves for your writing conference adventure:
- Pens (plural)
- A bag that’s comfortable to carry and big enough for handouts, swag, and whatever else you might pick up over the course of a day
- Business cards
- Comfortable shoes
- Outfits that align with your author brand
- Refillable water bottle
- Cell phone charger
- Cell phone, for that matter
- Pitching materials (Common options include an index card with your elevator pitch on it and copies of an author or book one-sheet to share with others upon request.)
Making the Most of Workshops and Panels
As you’ve noticed on your writers’ conference schedule, there are different types of educational opportunities at these events.
Breakout sessions and roundtables allow you to engage with other attendees and industry professionals in a small group setting. Workshops are interactive, giving you a chance to apply lessons you learn as you learn them.
In a panel, several industry pros offer their insight on a given topic in a discussion led by a moderator. And then there are the sessions where a speaker educates you on their area of expertise. As with a panel, this type of event typically ends with a Q&A.
Now, how do you make the most of these opportunities to learn from seasoned professionals?
Choosing the Right Sessions
First, make sure the sessions you attend are likely to be valuable for you at this phase in your career. Prioritize events that:
- Are applicable to your genre
- Can help you grow in an area of weakness
- Allow you to interact with fellow writers, agents, or editors
- Involve a speaker whose writing career resembles the one you want for yourself
If you can, sneak in a session or two that offers you an entirely new perspective. Maybe you think a workshop on humor in dialogue looks fun even though you write thrillers. Go for it! Prioritize the goals you set going into this conference, but give yourself wiggle room to break outside the box, too.
The Art of Interacting
When you attend a conference session, look for some opportunities to interact.
Volunteer your work for critique in a workshop. Ask a question in a roundtable discussion. Or simply introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you before the session starts. Seize any little opportunity to stay mentally active and connect.
Oh! And definitely take notes. Trust me, you won’t remember the brilliant thing the panelist just said.
The Art of the Q&A
I recommend preparing a question or two ahead of each event. This is especially important in a roundtable or breakout session, when you’re basically handed an invitation to engage.
When you ask a question, make sure it’s concise, relevant to the topic being discussed, and potentially helpful for other attendees.
Please note that, if you’re hoping to build a relationship with the speaker, asking a smart, succinct question is going to do a lot more for you than trying to sneak your book pitch into the preamble of your question.
And I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but other readers might: a Q&A is for questions. You’re looking to gain new knowledge, not show the speaker how much knowledge you already have or let them know you grew up in the same county.
On that note, let’s talk about…
Building Valuable Connections
As intimidating as writing conferences can be for the introverts among us, you’ll likely find that connecting with people gets easier as the week(end) goes on. After all, you’re surrounded by people who love what you love. The connection already exists.
Having said that, there is one uncomfortable element of the conference environment that doesn’t get enough discussion.
It’s the concept of “networking”—building relationships because you want something from someone. It can feel very icky if you think about it too hard. I struggled with this a lot at my first writing conference.
Over time, I realized that the relationships that benefitted me professionally were also the ones that fit best personally. One day you’ll look back and see that your big, beautiful career was built by genuine connections.
So don’t worry about the razzle-dazzle. Forget about schmoozing. Just get out there and find your people.
We’re going to talk about how to approach your peers—fellow professionals at your level of success—and how to approach agents, editors, and speakers. The strategies are different for these two groups of people.
But no matter who you meet, take notes about the conversation afterwards. Pick out key things you discussed and write it down. Not only will this help you remember why you wanted to keep in touch, it’ll also give you a great way to maintain a sense of personal connection.
Imagine opening your post-conference follow-up message with something like, “Thanks for that YouTube video rec—so helpful!” or “I hope the storms in Florida didn’t delay your flight home.”
Way more personal than “Hi! Remember how we both went to this conference?”
Never underestimate the importance of connecting with writers who are still at your level, not to mention assistants at agencies and publishing houses.
These are the people who will grow alongside you as the years go by. They’ll become your critique partners and beta readers. You’ll share resources with each other and might even put one another in touch with career-changing agents and editors one day.
These are also the easiest people to connect with at a conference. They’re everywhere—sitting next to you in workshops, staring at their drink in the networking party, and kicking the same vending machine that was giving you trouble yesterday.
All it takes to meet them is a “hello.” Don’t be afraid to slide into a group of writers mingling at a party. Everybody is hoping to meet people at this conference. When you initiate a conversation, the other person will only feel relieved they didn’t have to do it.
If it helps, plan openers ahead of time. Things like:
- “Have you seen this speaker before?”
- “What’s the best session you’ve attended so far?”
- “Have you read the latest [big-name author in your shared genre]?”
- “I’m [name] and I don’t know how to start a conversation.”
You can even work conversation starters into your wardrobe. Do you have any literary-themed jewelry? Or a shirt that references something only authors in your genre would understand?
Speakers and Gatekeepers
These are the people with the power to give you a serious boost in your writing career. They’re the most intimidating people to approach, but you can do it successfully if you keep these things in mind:
They want to meet talented and delightful new authors - Don’t apologize for introducing yourself. It’s exactly what you’re supposed to do at a conference. Having said that:
They’re in demand… and possibly exhausted - A lot of people want their attention. The best way to win them over is by keeping your introduction brief. Let them know what you loved about their presentation. Sneak in a little tidbit about yourself—probably just a sentence. (Definitely mention if you have a shared professional acquaintance or a writer/agent/editor they know encouraged you to introduce yourself.)
If they don’t make a move to engage you in further conversation, thank them for their time and peace out.
Research pays off - Look up the major players at the conference beforehand. Get familiar with their work, accolades, and reputation so you can demonstrate in conversation that you admire them for a reason other than their status.
Your goal is to make this the first encounter - When you’re standing in front of someone who seems like they hold the keys to your future, it can feel like this is your one shot to sell yourself.
It’s not. You want to build a relationship, and no good relationship begins with someone thrusting their manuscript at another person and asking them to make their dreams come true.
Focus on making a connection, being delightful, and asking for nothing.
Perfecting Your Pitch
Now suppose the agent or editor you meet in the networking party asks about your book. How do you get them salivating over your story?
We actually have an entire article on the art of the book pitch, but here are some basics to get you started.
The Elevator Pitch
Prepare your elevator pitch before the conference. An elevator pitch is two to three sentences that convey your genre, protagonist, goal, obstacle, and setting. It should spark curiosity and make the listener want to know more.
This is the go-to pitching style at a conference because most or all of the opportunities you’ll have to talk about your book will be in the context of casual conversation. A page-long summary is a speech, not a conversation. An elevator pitch encourages a back-and-forth.
If the listener is into it, they’ll ask questions. And if you’re prepared with great answers, they might invite you to send them the first chapter.
When to Pitch
The two best times to pitch your story at a writing conference are 1) when you’re attending a pitching event or workshop and 2) when someone invites you to tell them what you’re working on.
If you hit it off with a fellow writer at your level, it’s totally appropriate to ask if they’ll give you feedback on your elevator pitch.
Don’t pitch your novel to speakers, agents, or editors who haven’t asked to hear it.
Expect to get feedback whether you ask for it or not. The listener might offer constructive criticism on the story itself or the way you pitched the story.
If it’s an agent or editor giving you a tip for improving your presentation strategy, you should probably take that advice right away.
If the feedback requires you to rework a major aspect of your story, take the suggestion seriously but let it marinate for a bit. Their recommendation might feel like a lightning bolt of absolute genius, in which case you can rewrite your elevator pitch according to your planned changes and talk about your book as a work-in-progress rather than a finished manuscript.
Or you can keep pitching your original version and see if other listeners have a similar response.
What you do after the conference is exactly as important as what you do during the conference. After all, if you don’t find a way to use the knowledge and connections you’ve gathered, what was it all for?
Here are some suggestions for making sure the lessons learned at a writing conference last well beyond the closing remarks.
Organizing and Reviewing Conference Notes
You’ll accumulate a lot of written information over the course of the event, including the notes you took, business cards you gathered, and a tidy little stack of handouts.
Set aside time to review and organize all of it.
Create a spreadsheet for your conference contacts. Include their names, contact information, what you talked about, and why you want to follow up with them.
As for session notes and handouts, you might choose to organize those in a binder or scan them into a digital file. Create a to-do list for any immediate action items the conference inspired, like looking up writing tools you heard about or trying out the BookTok tips you learned.
Also make a note of any craft-related information you want to apply to your current work-in-progress.
Connecting With New Contacts
Use your contact spreadsheet to reach out to the folks you met at the conference. If there’s anything specific to follow-up on—maybe you discussed swapping manuscripts or an agent asked to see a book proposal—get the ball rolling on that.
If they’re present on social media, give them a follow! Social media provides a golden opportunity to stay on their radar without being all up in their business. (Little tip: connect with professional accounts instead of personal accounts whenever possible.)
Planning for Next Time
Finally, reflect on your conference experience. Make a list of what worked and what you’d like to do differently next time.
Were you so glad you had that external battery with you? Did you find yourself wishing you’d sprung for color on your author one-sheet? Write it all down.
That way you’ll be all set up to get even more out of the next writing conference.
Get a Jump on Building Your Network
May I offer one last tip?
Start building your network of fellow writers now, before your conference even begins. Proactively seek out other creatives at local writing events and in online communities like Dabble’s Story Craft Café.
While nothing compares to making in-person connections, virtual networking is a great way to build confidence and even find conference buddies before the big event.
And in the Story Craft Café, it’s easy to find your people, whether they’re other writers in your genre, writers with similar goals, or your future beta readers.
Membership is absolutely free for Dabblers and non-Dabblers alike. Just follow this link to sign up.
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