Ten Keys to Your Best-Ever Writing Conference!

Last week, I blogged about some of the reasons writers should attend writing conferences…and then I headed out to my own conference experience with the Pikes Peak Writers, in Colorado Springs Colorado. It was fantastic! Fantastic for all the reasons I mentioned in my earlier post, and for half a dozen others as well.


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The Conference Experience

It got me thinking about the conference experience, and how it’s changed for me over the years. I get a lot more out of writing conferences now than I did eight or five or even three years ago. Why is that? In part, it’s because I know more people. It’s a lot easier—and more fun—to go to a conference filled with familiar faces than it is to go to one where I don’t know anyone. It’s also because I am more confident in myself as a writer and person than I was even a few years ago, much less when I was taking my first tentative steps into the writing life.

Those things come with time, but they aren’t the only reasons I get more out of conferences today than I did at my first few conferences. I also benefit more because I know how to glean more benefit from those crowded, crazy, and often-stressful days. I’ve discovered some great conference “keys.”

Are you going to a conference this year? With a little preparation, you can make this your best conference experience ever!

Know your purpose.

Even before you decide which conference to attend, take a look at your current needs as a writer. What is the most important thing you need to get from a conference? Is this conference the best place to meet that need, or should you look at others? Is there a particular editor or agent you’d like to meet? Are you searching for a writing buddy? Maybe you need a healthy dose of inspiration or encouragement. By identifying your primary goal in attending a conference, you can prioritize your time, session choices, and social activities.

Do your research.

Before you go to a conference, spend a day researching the editors, agents, authors, and other speakers who will attend. Check out books editors and agents have worked on. Do they have a bio online? A wish list? Find out whether they sound like a good fit for your work so you know where to target your efforts. It’s also worth taking time to investigate other speakers. Some authors are known for giving must-hear presentations. Check out their blogs, talk to writing friends, and research other writers’ conference reports, to make sure you don’t miss the A-list sessions.

Set goals.

Once you know what you most need from a conference, set goals that will help you meet that need. Maybe you want to make sure to get to the dinner line extra early to snag a seat with that agent you’ve been dying to meet, or maybe you want to set aside time to get to know other writers. With a concrete goal in mind, you’re more likely to seize opportunities that arise—and to create opportunities you might otherwise miss.

Step outside your comfort zone.

Make sure to push yourself a little during the goal-setting process. Prepare a manuscript page for a “first pages” critique session. Challenge yourself to ask questions and strike up conversations with people you don’t know. A writing conference is a magnet for WRITERS. You know, YOUR people. The more you are willing to step outside your comfort zone, the more likely you are to make friends and connections that will last for years to come.

Know your limits.

Although you want to push yourself a little at a conference, you also don’t want to burn out. Identify things that will create stress or sap your energy. Be gentle in your expectations. For instance, I know that crowds, noisy environments, and social interactions leave me exhausted, so I make sure to build a little bit of down time into every day. I use this time to rest and recharge, so I’m ready for the next conference opportunity!

Know what recharges you.

Whatever your personality, conferences can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining. Take time in advance to identify ways you can give yourself a mental, physical, or emotional boost when you find yourself flagging. What recharges you? A quick nap? A walk outside? A healthy snack? I like to take fifteen minutes for a bit of yoga, meditation, or outside time. I’m also known to skip the occasional session to veg in my room or—if I’m ambitious—hit the exercise room.

Practice your pitch.

Whether you have a complete manuscript or merely a story idea, a conference is a great place to gauge interest in your project. While official “pitch sessions” are usually reserved for writers with finish manuscripts, there are countless other opportunities to run your idea past more experienced writers, editors, or agents—if you are considerate.

  • Do: Prepare a one- to three-sentence summary of your current writing project.
  • Do: Practice giving that pitch to friends, family, pets, and critique group members.
  • Do: Polish and perfect that pitch to make sure it conveys character, genre, premise, and theme, preferably with a dash of sparkle.
  • Do: Think about questions you might like to ask someone in the industry.
  • Don’t: Pitch in the bathroom, slide a manuscript under a hotel room door, or shove papers at anyone who hasn’t explicitly asked for them.
  • Don’t: Monopolize the conversation.
  • Don’t: Corner the editor, agent, or anyone else, for that matter, to listen to a lengthy retelling of your story.
Write up the answer to the question “What do you write?”

This is the standard conversation starter, used by editors, agents, and authors alike. You’ll hear it in the bar, on the elevator, while waiting in the dinner line, and when seated around a conference table—and you’d be amazed how many people have a hard time answering it. Give this question some serious thought in advance if (like me) you are at all prone to sudden bouts of word stumbling and memory loss. What do I write? Um…ah…yeah. You may only have thirty seconds to connect with an industry professional, so make sure you’re ready.

  • Do: Be brief.
  • Do: Include the age group for which you write.
  • Do: Include your genre. If you’re ambitious, you can even add in a brief log line.
  • Don’t: Say “I write for everyone.” You want to sound professional and focused, not like someone who does a hundred different things, none of them well (even if you DO do a hundred things well.)
  • Don’t: Include a laundry list of everything you’ve ever written.
Create a re-entry plan.

Conferences are exhausting, and chances are good that the rest of your life won’t grind to a halt while you’re away from home, family, and work. Cut yourself some slack as you re-enter daily life. Plan to spend time catching up. Also plan some time—preferably on your first day home—to organize your conference notes, session handouts, business cards, and other materials . I create a to-do list of things I don’t want to forget. For instance, I returned from this conference with twenty-some pages of story notes from Don Maass’s Thursday workshop. I don’t have time to incorporate all those notes right away, but I want to make sure I won’t forget them, either.

Consider volunteering.

I think the absolute best way to get the most out of a writing conference is to volunteer. Volunteers generally receive some sort of perk to compensate them for their efforts, such as reduced conference registration, preferred seating at meals, or a guaranteed pitch appointment. More than that, though, volunteering puts you in the thick of things. You’re more likely to spend quality time with faculty members, more likely to get an introduction to someone you want to meet, more likely to hear breaking industry news. You get to know the other volunteers. You get to look purposeful and official because, well, you are. If you’re worried about conference jitters, it can be tremendously calming to have Things to Do during the day: people to chauffer, announcements to make, etc. Besides, without volunteers, how would conferences ever happen?

Your turn: How do you make the most of your conference experience? Any tips to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

The hidden price of "productivity" every writer needs to know - www.cherylreif.com

You’ve probably read the same tips I have: Have a smart phone? Check Facebook while standing in line at the post office! Respond to Twitter messages while waiting for your dentist! Catch up on your news feed while sitting on the pot! For years, I thought the path to increased productivity was to squeeze in MORE–more […]


  1. says

    I’m loving all the post-conference posts. I wish I had had a re-entry plan. This morning, I knew I was no longer in the conference bubble and tried to make notes of what to do.

    • says

      Making notes helps–at least I worry less about forgetting something important! I only worry about when I will GET to everything on that list….

  2. Mona says

    Great note, Cheryl.
    I just returned from the New England conference, and I’m no where near organized with the notes and the to dos. I will tell you something that four of us did pre conference. We went the day before and had a little 1 1/2 day writing “retreat’. It was wonderful. After our lunch chat, we grabbed our computers and wrote.
    I’m a volunteer, was prepared somewhat, this year, now if I had a re-entry plan!

    • says

      Hi Mona, what a great idea! I grabbed a little bit of writing time during the day on Friday (after an all-day Thursday workshop with Donald Maass, which left me itching to write), but didn’t find any time after that. I love the idea of starting the weekend with a writing day.

  3. says

    I’m eyeing a couple of possibilities early this fall. Hope I can make the way possible. And when I do, I’ll need to revisit this post for all these great reminders! Glad the conference was such a hit for you. Looking forward to hearing more about it :-)

    • says

      Hi Kenda, I hope you can make a conference happen this year, too! I feel quite decadent because I attended a big one last fall plus my local children’s writing conference, but I’m SO glad I decided to go.

  4. Myrtle says

    Goals are very important and for me, some thing is not worth doing for if you don’t have goals to be achieved.. Thanks for the help..

    • says

      Hi Myrtle, thanks for stopping by! Goals can certainly make a big difference in what you take from an experience!

  5. Krizza says

    Writing and designing a brochure is a highly effective way to spread the word about an upcoming conference.

  6. says

    What a wonderful post! As Director of the Southampton Childrens Literature Conference, which takes place every July in Southampton NY, I could not agree more with all of these points. I’ll be sharing this post on our FB page, and would only add that – if the Conference has been truly productive – you can expect its value to have a trickle-down effect that lasts for many months beyond the Conference itself, so don’t worry about getting home and putting everything into action right away.
    Emma Walton Hamilton

    • says

      Hi Emma, thanks for the shout-out! Great point about the trickle-down effect. My only problem is that I want to pursue way too many post-Conference ideas….so this is a great way to take the pressure off.

  7. says

    Excellent advice. My re-entry plan was to veg-out on Monday. And I didn’t really choose this plan – it chose me. After running on overdrive for four days, I’m pretty much useless.

    Great to see you at the conference! And apologies for not costuming it up on Friday night. By the time you saw me, I was beyond help. :)

    • says

      Hi Wendy, how funny! I know I’ve seen you online before, but I never put the online you and the real-world you together before :). No worries about the costume–I didn’t go to the Friday banquet at ALL, so I can’t really complain :).

      Yeah, I pretty much vegged out on Monday as well. I feel *almost* back to normal, only a week later.