Your Quick and Dirty Guide to Writing Conferences

Writing conferences cost a lot of resources. They require financial resources in the form of fees, travel, lodging, meals, and drinks with your fellow writers. They eat up temporal resources in the form of time you spend getting there and back, and in recovering the week after. They take up energy resources in the form of lost sleep and excitement, and social resources both in terms of being extroverted and time spent away from your family. 

My point is, writing conferences are a serious investment. When you attend one, it’s important that you do all you can to maximize the return you get from it. Here are some of the top things you can do before, during, and after a conference to make that happen.

Whether you’re considering going to your first writing conference, or want to get the most you can out of your twentieth, here’s what you need to know. 

Before the Conference

You Need a Plan

Going to an evening meetup at a coffee shop in town, it’s fine to just show up and see what happens. A writing conference is a bigger investment, so you should go with as finely-detailed a sense of what you want as possible. Even though your list of things you get out of it will be much longer, it’s good to identify some core goals. 

Be careful, though. You will learn a lot at the conference, and have a frankly overwhelming number of opportunities. Don’t try to make a comprehensive to-do list of possibilities. There will be so many that you won’t have time to do any of them right. 

Instead, identify one core goal in each of three areas of your writing life:

  • Craft: the art and science of putting words on the page.
  • Career: growing your audience and/or income as a writer.
  • Connections: meeting fellow writers and other professionals in the industry.

Each of these goals will differ based on where you are in your writing. For example, a brand-new writer might have the craft goal of simply learning the different kinds of writing that actually get sold in the industry right now. They might set the career goal of learning how to write a query letter. For connections, they might aim to find three people in their zip code they could meet with once a month. 

A more advanced author might aim to improve their structure and pacing as a craft goal, learn how to fine-tune their Amazon pages for career, and interview several book publicity companies they find at the conference’s trade show. 

You get the idea. Now, what are your goals?

You Need a Product

This is the core difference between an amateur and a professional in any endeavor. Amateurs, regardless of their skill, passion, or expertise, don’t have anything they can sell. Professionals do. 

Now, in this case, “sell” isn’t for money. It’s an idea you can pitch to others well enough that they will think about it and engage with it after the conference. 

If you have a finished manuscript and want to get an agent, that is your product. Make certain you have a fabulous (and clean!) copy ready to email out on request. (Pro tip: do not bring printed pages or flash drives. Nobody wants those.)

If you don’t want an agent but have a manuscript, your product is your writing and your customer is the professionals who help publicize self-published books. You’ll find them giving talks, and behind a booth in the trade show. Bring a printed first chapter.

If you don’t have a finished manuscript yet, your product is you. Show up, be awesome, and have business cards ready. A “sale” for you is a relationship you can cultivate in the days, weeks, and months after the conference. 

You Need Preparation

At least a month before the conference, go to their website or ask them to mail you a copy of the program. Walk through the classes and events with your plan and product in mind and schedule out your day. What classes will you take? Which mixers will you attend? Where will you go after hours? Where will you sleep? (Pro tip: if you can afford it, stay at the hotel. A lot of the best stuff happens after hours.)

Once you’ve made that schedule, go through each block of time and ask yourself what you might need for that. Pen and paper or laptop for notes in classes. Business cards and a debit card for drinks at the mixer. Pepto bismol and some aspirin for the morning after. Rehearsing your “elevator pitch” for the agent and publisher lunch. You’ll have a list of things you need to have, and things you need to do. 

Once you have that list, make sure you’ve checked all of the boxes at least a week before the first day of the conference. 

Naturally, you will deviate from this carefully crafted plan. That’s the nature of conferences. But if you make and prepare for a plan, you’ll be better equipped to manage those deviations than you would be if you hadn’t taken the time to make the plan. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” He was talking about World War II, but could have been talking about writers’ conferences. 

Advanced Skill: Your Conference “Ready Kit”

Two of my best professional contacts to this day happened because one time I had ibuprofen when an agent had a headache, and another time I had Tiger Balm when a publisher had a tweak in his neck. Packing a small bag with stuff you’ll need, and other people might need, is a really good idea for conferences. Here’s what I bring in mine:

  • Business Stuff: a pen, a small notepad, business cards
  • Convenience Stuff: chewing gum or breath mints, small pack of tissues, small sewing kit
  • Medical Stuff: bandaids, throat lozenges, individually packaged ibuprofen and tummy medicine

That’s mine. You should figure out yours, or if you really want to go the extra mile check out some of those Altoid box convenience kits. They’re a bit much, but you’d have a little of everything.

During the Conference

Attend a Class on Craft

This dovetails with your goals from above, but bears repeating. Every conference will have several classes each day on different aspects of the craft. You should try to attend several that serve your core goal, but also branch out a bit. 

Go to one that talks about a genre you don’t write in, where you can find things they do well that will make your writing better. Go to one about your favorite genre to read (if it’s different from your favorite genre to write.) Go to one by an author you like, and even one by an author you don’t. 

Broadening your experience is the key here. You’ll never know where that one epiphany that levels up your writing will come from, so spend time and energy in lots of different places. 

Attend a Class on Marketing

I know — you want to write because you don’t want to be a marketer or salesperson. That’s fine and good, but to succeed as a writer you’ll have to sell something — even if it’s just your book to an agent. The marketing classes at writer’s conferences tend to be very good, and specialized in selling exactly what you have to offer. 

Again, this will likely dovetail with your career goals, but expand on your core needs. Explore something you’ve never thought of, and even something you think you hate. Most things we hate, we hate because we don’t really understand them. 

Attend a Networking Class or Event

As part of your connections goal, you will need to talk with people. The place to start with this is at the networking events all conferences offer as part of the program. There will be one early on the first day, and something most evenings. The meals also count. Go to as many as you can while leaving time to recharge your social batteries. 

It’s also smart to attend a networking class if one’s on offer. They help you practice core skills (like your elevator pitch, and why you never offer your manuscript to an agent in real time), and also put you through exercises with a random stranger sitting near you — who often ends up being your convention buddy for at least a few hours.

Take Notes

Do not imagine for an instant you will remember everything you learn in the classes you take. Write things down. Type them into your laptop. Use whatever method you’re comfortable with. But take notes. 

If you have the energy and time, it can be good to review those notes at the end of each day. Use a highlighter and a different-colored pen to highlight and expand on the key points from each class.

On that subject…

Observe the Rule of Three

You are going to come out of each class with more information than you can conceivably work on, and you’re going to attend multiple classes. This rule helps to focus your efforts when you’re swimming with ideas and discoveries.

For each class, identify three things you want to incorporate into your writing career moving forward. For each day, identify the three of those you think will be the most powerful. Promise yourself you will take a first step on one of those no more than three days after you get home from the conference.

Talk With the Staff and Faculty

Conferences have two kinds of people working at them: staff and faculty. 

Faculty includes the speakers, agents, publishers, and other professionals who come in to give classes, take pitches, lead workshops, and the like. You want to talk with these folks because they are ahead of you in the career you want to have. They can give you advice on site, and if you really hit it off one might be willing to mentor you after the conference is over. 

Spend more time listening than talking to these folks, and be aware that they’re inundated with people who want something from them. Give them space, encouragement, and help — and stuff from your conference kit if they need it. 

Staff are the (usually volunteer) workers at the convention. They’re the people handing out programs, taking attendance, managing the registration desk, handling IT, and all of that. You want to talk with them because they’re local, they know the industry, and not a lot of people bother talking with them. 

Commiserate with these folks, tell them what a great job they’re doing, and ask what they write. Those encouraging words mean a lot, and you might make a friend in the neighborhood.

Advanced Skill: Find Bar Con

After the official conference events are over, the faculty (along with select staff) usually conspire to meet in a bar someplace and unwind. This is sometimes, but not always, the bar in the conference’s hotel. They call this event “Bar Con”.

Find bar con. Buy a round of drinks. Listen more than you talk. I personally have gotten far more value out of drinks bought at bar con than I ever did with pitch sessions. It’s where you can make a real connection. 

After the Conference

Take Some Time to Rest

The last day of the conference and the day immediately after, put your notes away and focus on other things. Get some sleep. Eat good food. Remember what your kids look like. You will have put a lot of energy out over the weekend, and need to recover before you can really use what you’ve learned effectively. 

Also keep in mind this is true — usually truer — for the conference faculty. They’ll be exhausted and cranky for the first few days after. There is no need to jump into their email or slide into their DMs immediately, and more than a little risk.

Reach Out on Social Media

Late in the week after the conference, go through your pile of business cards, notes in margins, and new contacts on your phone. Send a brief note to everybody, saying you enjoyed meeting them, and asking as personalized a question as you can about something you remember about them. 

After that, let nature run its course. 

The Rule of Three, Part Two

Earlier, you identified one thing you’ll act on by the third day after the conference. Make sure that happens. 

After you’ve done that, make a list of all your other items from your rule of three. For each, write down two things:

  1. What “done” looks like in terms of acting on that thing you learned
  2. What the first step towards done is

With that list, pick the three items you think will be either the most impactful, or the fastest to finish. Make those a priority for the next month. As you finish items, choose another from the list. Keep going until you’ve finished them all.

(Pro tip: you won’t finish them all. You probably won’t finish half of them. But you’ll make so much more progress from what you did finish as opposed to what would happen if you didn’t pursue them.)

Advanced Skill: SMART Goals

We’ve written about these elsewhere, but here’s the short version. A good goal is a definition of work toward something you want, and it is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. For example, if you finished a class on marketing your KDP book, the goal “I want to sell more books” is only Relevant, and just barely at that because it’s so generic. 

Instead, you could phrase that goal as “I will sell 100 copies a month of the first book in my series by the time I attend this conference next year.”

Try this with your rule of three lessons, and watch your career expand farther than you thought it could. 

One Other Conference

Writing conferences are great for writers, but we also recommend hitting one more kind of conference or convention each year. If you write nonfiction, attend one that serves the industry you’re writing about. If you write fiction, attend a fan event for people who read your genre. 

The thing is, writing conferences are full of writers. Although all good writers are also big readers, it’s not the same as spending a weekend surrounded by people who need to read exactly what you write. Attending these conventions will help reassure you that you have an audience, and also give you ideas, leads, and connections that can further your career. You may even be able to get a table and make some sales to your readers.