By Jessica McCurdy-Crooks
What is a Writers’ Conference?
This is a gathering of writers, whether amateur or professional, discussing a particular subject or general information about writing, selling a novel, articles or even poetry or fiction readings. There are as many different types of writers’ conferences as there are different types of writers, such as Christian Writers’ Conference, fiction writers’ conferences, conferences for people who write for children — you get the picture. Whether or not they are useful depends on a number of factors. Perceptions and expectations are the deciding factor as to whether or not they are worthwhile. If you attend a conference expecting to sell your novel or get a major contract, then be prepared for some disappointment. Very few attendees at conferences end up selling a story.
Who attends These Conferences?
Attendees vary, from beginners to seasoned, many-time published writers. This coming together of people from such widely different writing backgrounds and experiences can add to the benefits to be derived from attending such a gathering.
Writers’ conference attendees fall into two main groups: students and teachers. Sometimes the lines between both can become blurred. A fellow writer noted that apart from teachers, students fall into three distinct groups, namely:
- Professionals who are seeking further networking opportunities
- Serious writers who have not yet been published
- Those who want to ‘feel’ like writers
What to Wear?
Dress codes vary as widely as these conferences do. For some semi-formal is fine; for most, however, the safe bet is “casual business.” Writer Del Stone is most comfortable in khaki slacks and a polo shirt; I find that a nice shirt and jeans normally go over well. There are dinners that might require that one be dressy, while at meetings something more casual can be worn. Workshops, on the other hand, allow for flexibility in dressing.
Some conferences will provide information on what to bring and wear, so it is a wise move to get brochures on the conferences you plan on attending.
What to Expect
Do keep your expectations realistic — don’t expect to come away as an award-winning writer. Your skill level as a writer will also impact on your experiences at a writers’ conference, especially if it is your first such foray. Marie Stone, a freelance writer from Oregon, noted that as a student, she “missed a lot because [she] was too busy being star-struck.” This happens to many first-timers, and even professionals are not above being dazzled by being in the same location as their heroes. However, try to remain focused on what is happening. How else will you learn?
Expect to work if you intend to get the most from attending. Work, work, work is the order of the day. Be prepared for this by taking along note pads, pencils, pens and other implements that you think you may need. Also, do not shy away from critique sessions — the feedback can help make your career.
Value / Networking Opportunities
The assertion that your expectations are the prime factor in determining “value received” is reiterated again and again by fellow writers, and even by speakers at such conferences. One professional writer, who also speaks at writers’ conferences, noted that “value for money” in terms of writers’ conferences is to some extent dependent on the attendee’s skill level as a writer, and his or her willingness to participate in class discussions.
Other factors that will effect what you take away with you from these gatherings include:
- The opportunities that exist for networking with other writers, publishers, editors
- How “good” the presenters are
- How keen the students are, as this will make for interesting interactions in critique sessions, etc.
If you will be incurring major expenses, try to find people who have attended this particular conference before and get feedback from them. This can save you from disappointment and feeling that you have been cheated.
Additionally, writers can significantly improve their collection of writing resources from the many offerings on sale. In the final analysis, though, the true value is your own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction.
The most valuable reward is that of making contacts; these networking opportunities can be just the lead you need to break into a particular market. Do not believe that you only need these contacts with editors and publishers; other writers are just as important as contacts. Many writers have gotten work from being recommended to a publisher from writers they have met at conferences. How to network successfully takes skill and tact. Try to be attentive to what is being said, even if it is not what you want to hear. If you look beyond the words, something useful might be gleaned, or better yet, you can arrange to have further discussions with the speaker. You should leave a conference with e-mail contacts and business cards, but be sure to tell the people that you will be in touch. One last word of advice about networking: be polite — people will remember.
Should you Pitch your Work?
This is the most important question on the mind of most people planning on attending a conference for the first time. The opinions on this vary widely — some writers advise against pitching, while others emphatically say “yes, yes, yes.” Whether or not to pitch your idea or work will depend on the conference.
Those against feel that opportunities should be used to socialize, so that publishers will be able to associate your face with a name the next time you submit to them. This, they feel, can have a positive effect on the response to your query.
Writer Charles Pekow recommends that while it is possible to pitch one’s work, subtlety should be used. His words of wisdom are to, while socializing, “enquire as to their services, jobs and interests so that you will know if what you have to offer is what they need.”
Some conferences actually have time set aside for pitching, so if it is important to you, select conferences that offer this as part of the package. If in doubt, call to find out. Be prepared; as such, select your best work(s) and write and rehearse a pitch or query to give to the editors/publishers you plan to approach. Having your story/article well thought out will save you wasting both your own time and that of other people. It will also show your professionalism and commitment.
One final word of caution: do not give in to the urge to just approach editors and pitch your work — it can be a major turn-off and presents future obstacles to your landing work with that company. You do not want to build a reputation for being rude.
Those who get the most from attending writers’ conferences are those individuals who are serious about their craft, and as such are prepared for the conference and know their expectations before attending. One thing is sure — even if you do not get a solid lead to work, the networking opportunities to be resulting from attending are unparalleled.
Jessica McCurdy-Crooks trained as a librarian, but notes that “these days I provide this service only on a part-time basis. I started writing poetry as my first love, but started writing reviews on Jamaican hotels, restaurants, etc. for an online company and found that I actually enjoyed writing.”