In my years of experience at writers’ conferences, I’ve seen the same mistakes made over and over again. One of the most obvious is not arriving on time. Dash in at the last minute and you’ll miss valuable networking opportunities with other writers and editors as everyone mills around the coffee urns and complimentary fruit and muffins.
Years ago, I made one of my best conference contacts with an editor as we chatted in a hotel elevator heading down to breakfast. She was a native New Yorker and I live on an island in Maine. On the surface, we couldn’t have seemed more different. She was intrigued enough to ask what I was working on and we continued the conversation over coffee. When our paths crossed again on our way to lunch, we decided to sit together. It turned out that she was starting a travel syndicate and looking for writers. For many years, I published dozens of articles in national and international newspapers through her syndicate. My byline on those articles led to requests from other editors and opened a new direction for me as a travel, food, and wine writer.
Get the Most Out of Keynote Speeches and Panel Discussions
Many conferences open with an address by a keynote speaker, usually someone well known in the writing or editing world. The conference committee will have chosen this speaker carefully, and you’ll find that no matter where you are in your career, he or she will have interesting information to share.
Panel discussions and workshops usually take place immediately after the keynote address. You’ve come prepared with a way to take notes, so make yourself comfortable and jot down any questions that occur to you as you listen to the speaker or panelists. Learn from the questions asked by others in the audience and don’t be afraid to raise your own hand. At a conference for fiction writers, for example, you might ask if the speaker foresees any trends in the next few years. If you’re writing a memoir, perhaps a successful memoirist’s advice on dealing with family members who don’t think you should write about them will be helpful.
Be sure to collect any and all handouts from the speakers and write down any information they share about following up with them after the conference.
Take a Break!
If lunch is provided at the conference venue, find an empty seat and introduce yourself to others at the table. You will probably find a mix of writers and editors eager to talk about their work. A tip: Too often I see friends who have come to the conference together sitting together at lunch. This is not the time to huddle. Go your separate ways for now so that you can both make contacts. You’ll have twice the information to share when the conference is over.
If lunch isn’t provided and you’re heading out on your own, look around for others who are alone and ask them to join you. This can be an especially kind gesture if you know your way around the area and other attendees have come from a distance. If you are an inherently shy person, and we writers often are, remember that asking someone to join you, or accepting an invitation from another attendee, may be the start of a new friendship. At the very least, you will have made another contact in the writing world.
Many conferences end the day with a social hour. Over wine and cheese or other goodies, you can meet new people or continue conversations you enjoyed earlier in the day. Everyone will be ready to relax by now, so while it’s fine to compliment a speaker on her talk or to tell an editor that you enjoyed speaking with him earlier and look forward to following up, this is not the time to hand out copies of your manuscript or engage in a lengthy description of your latest project.
If you had a one-on-one meeting with an editor who expressed interest in your work, you should follow up as soon as possible. Whether by email or a written note, start by thanking them for meeting with you at the conference. Check your notes to ensure that you have included any materials they may have asked for, such as a resume, a summary of your project, sample chapters, or a completed manuscript. Keep the letter brief, and close by writing that you look forward to hearing from them at their convenience. Proofread your correspondence carefully and be very sure you spell the editor’s name correctly! I have heard many an editor say how much they are bothered by having their names misspelled. “If a writer can’t be bothered to check the spelling of my name,” said one editor, “how can I be sure anything she writes will be accurate?” She has a point.
Writers have launched successful careers without attending conferences, but there’s no question that conferences can, and often do, open doors in the competitive world of publishing. Whether the conference you attend is large or small, located in a major city or a much smaller venue, you will come away with a better understanding of how editors work and how to approach them. You will have learned what individual book publishers and magazine editors are currently seeking, as well as what themes or topics they never consider. In short, you will have taken a big step along the path to professional writing.
Good luck as you continue your exciting journey!
General advice about conferences from start to finish, with helpful tips for writers of both genders.
A quick but thorough review of helpful tips for anyone attending their first writers’ conference.
The American Society of Journalists and Authors, the country’s largest organization for professional nonfiction writers, holds an annual multi-day spring conference in New York City and occasional smaller conferences elsewhere in the country.
Proving that today’s technology allows us to become successful writers no matter how far we live from the publishing meccas, IFW instructor Karen Hammond writes, edits, and coaches fiction and nonfiction writers from an island off the coast of Maine. She has been widely published in national and international magazines and newspapers, taught magazine writing to university juniors and seniors for many years, and is the recipient of several writing awards. She is the author of the popular guidebook, Backroads & Byways of New England. Karen shares her island home with her husband and an office cat named Noelle who stopped by one snowy Christmas and decided to stay.