Thursday, March 15, 2012

25 Ways to Rock Writers Conferences

After more than a decade of attending and speaking at writers conferences, I've compiled a list of the most essential writing conference tips for writers who are considering getting out to an event. I hope this list also acts as a useful checklist for veteran conference goers too. I know I plan to refer back to this page before my upcoming events.

Robert Lee Brewer, speaking at Blue Ridge Writers Conference.

Here are my 25 Writing Conference Tips:

  1. Set goals. Before even picking which event to attend, writers should make a list of goals they have for a writers conference. This might be as simple as listing out items like "have fun" and "learn more about mystery writing (or insert genre)."
  2. Pick writing event. Once you know what you want out of a conference, then it's time to find the right writing event for you. Keep in mind if you want feedback on your writing, a writing workshop may be more appropriate than a conference. Find more than 100 writers conferences and workshops on, which I edit as my day job.
  3. Make reservations early. If you have to travel, be sure to get all the stressful parts of the trip out of the way as early as possible. This may include buying plane tickets and reserving a hotel room. Personally, I recommend Hotwire, which Tammy and I used to book our flight and hotel for AWP recently.
  4. Sign up early for critiques and appointments. If you plan to take advantage of critiques or appointments with editors, agents, mentors, etc., then sign up as early as possible to make sure you get first pick. Also, make sure you know the rules for how the critique or appointment will work (how much time it will last, what you should bring, etc.).
  5. Know schedule before the event. Figure out the schedule before you attend the event. This will enable you to plot out a plan of attack (see below) before hitting the writers conference. And preparation is the most important key to rocking a writers conferences.
  6. Make connections before writers conference. Use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks to connect with conference goers ahead of the event. Ask questions like "what are you bringing to the conference" or "are you scheduling any appointments?"
  7. Take business cards. If you don't have any business cards, get some. I prefer VistaPrint, though I've heard quite a few recommendations for Moo over the past couple months. For my most recent business cards, I included this information: Name, Specialties, E-mail, URL, Address, and Twitter handle. I want to make it as easy as possible for people to contact me and learn more about me (and what I do).
  8. Think of conversation starters in advance. If you're like me (and many writers), you're probably a bit introverted. So figuring out what to say to people on the spot can sometimes be very difficult. To help the anxiety of coming up with something clever to say, think of a few key questions to ask strangers ahead of the event. Questions like: "How do you think the conference is going so far?" "What are you trying to get out of this conference?" "Who's been your favorite speaker?" Just come up with 3 or 4 basic questions and use them to get a conversation rolling--and be sure to ask for a business card (and offer yours).
  9. Know how to talk about yourself. Before the event, think of how to explain yourself as a writer and your current projects in one sentence answers. Keep it brief in your initial explanation and go more in depth if the person starts asking more questions.
  10. Pack a bag. This bag should not be your luggage. Instead, it should be a bag that has room for books, conference materials, and other items (see below)--but is not a pain to carry around. For instance, I have an orange Jansport backpack from my college days that is still holding up today.
  11. Bring chargers. If you are bringing along any electronics, I suggest you bring your charger as well. Your phone, laptop, etc., may run low on power before the day is over if you're using it a lot. Be prepared and keep the power level above half throughout the day.
  12. Pack a small snack. The writers conference may offer a lunch, but you may start to run low on energy before lunch--or before the end of the day. Include a snack in your bag--just in case. At AWP, I was thankful to have packed a couple granola bars.
  13. Bring cash (and coins). The cash will help at the conference bookstore or for any unexpected opportunities to pay in cash only. Coins are advised for snack and soda machines. While many accept cash, I was stuck at a venue last year with nothing to drink and a vending machine that only accepted coins. It was miserable.
  14. Stay hydrated. Connected to the last point, always make a point of staying hydrated. You'll likely be excited and nervous at the writers conference, so you'll be perspiring a bit. Dehydration leads to headaches or worse--so drink, drink, drink! I always pack one or two bottles of water or soda with me.
  15. Have a plan. If you know the schedule in advance and have any meetings set up in advance, then you take advantage of that information to formulate a plan of attack for the conference. Don't wait until you're there, because you'll miss opportunities to connect with other attendees and listen to speakers. That said...
  16. Keep an open mind. Having a plan is essential. Sticking to that plan is not. If there's an unexpected change in the schedule or some amazing networking opportunity presents itself, don't be afraid to adjust accordingly. There have been times when I've missed attending sessions I really wanted to attend, because I was having a great conversation with other speakers or attendees.
  17. Keep expectations in check. Going to a writers conference can get expensive, so many writers place high expectations on what they'll get out of the writing conference. Don't fall into this trap. It's great to aim high, but keep your expectations low. Most writers don't leave conferences with book deals or business opportunities. However, opportunities can present themselves later if you continue the conversation.
  18. Smile. Writers conferences bring together a bunch of strangers who are interested in the process of writing. Avoid looking like an unapproachable person by doing your best Clint Eastwood impersonation thoughout the conference. Instead, focus on smiling as much as possible (until it becomes second nature), and those around you will respond.
  19. Dress with layers. Even if it's summer, I advise packing a long sleeve T-shirt, because some venues will crank the A/C too much. If it's winter, some venues will make it hot (so you'll want to be able to strip a layer or two off without shocking anyone).
  20. Stay organized. Know where your business cards are. Know where your conference program and map are. Keep your notes from sessions and appointments on separate pages that are labeled for your reference later.
  21. Eat with someone. If the writers conference organizes lunches, take advantage of them and sit with strangers. Remember to ask those questions you prepared above. If possible, try to make sure you're not dominating the conversation. Also, hand out those business cards.
  22. If you receive business cards, jot down notes. The notes about the person who gave you the cards can be made on the actual business cards or in a notebook you've brought with you. Be sure to note who the person is, what you talked about, and where you met (lunch? during a session? in the hallways?). This will be helpful for follow ups after the conference.
  23. Keep active list of next steps. On a separate piece of paper, keep a running list of next steps to take after the conference is over. Example next steps might include: Follow up with Person A via e-mail about Tip A that we discussed after Panel A; Learn more about how to monetize blog; Buy domain name for website using my name as URL; etc. These next steps will give you a clear idea of what you need to accomplish immediately after the event--so that you don't get stuck in a post-event vacuum.
  24. Follow-ups after the event. These should go on your running list of next steps, but I just want to emphasize the power of following up with folks after the event--even if it's just to say, "It was nice meeting you at the conference and talking about the craft of writing."
  25. Continue the dialogue. There's a big difference between social networking online and social networking in flesh and blood. Take advantage of that more intimate connection by using social media tools to keep in touch with your writers conference connections. Let them know what you're up to, but also, be sure to keep tabs on what they're accomplishing (and help out whenever you're able).
Final bonus tip: Take pictures that you can easily share via e-mail and/or social media sites. It's a perfect way to add more value to your new found connections by sharing images of them and yourself at the event.


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Check out these other Not Bob posts for writers:


Kathleen Cassen Mickelson said...

This is a wonderful reference list. I plan on using it! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I love a list and this could apply to any meeting thanks

Unknown said...

Wow, I'm prepared now to prepare...thanks for great tips.

Julie DeGuia said...

This is a great list. I am going to my first conference next month and I will be printing this out as I prepare! Thanks.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Julie, following this list will help you start out about 8 years ahead of where I started when I attended my first conference. Have fun!

Thanks, everyone else, for commenting!

Judy Roney said...

These are great hints, Robert. I think my expectations are always unrealistic and I didn't think about lowering them. It sure would make life at the conference a lot more relaxing.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Yeah, Judy. The benefit of lowering expectations is two-fold: one, it lowers your stress level; two, it helps you relax and take advantage of opportunities you weren't even looking to find.

Debbie Bouwer said...

Just in time for the Cape Town International Book Fair (there are very few of these in South Africa, so it is a first for me. Thank you for the tips!

Felt Tip Fountain Pen said...

Great and honest advice.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Have fun, Debbie.

And thanks, Colette!

Heather Marsten said...

Great advice. Thanks for sharing. I especially liked the idea of writing notes about person on the back of business cards.

Lee Cart said...

Great list. The only thing I would add to bring is a small clipboard, so one has a solid surface to write on, like those notes you suggest on business cards...much easier to do than trying to balance it all in the air!

Robert Lee Brewer said...

That's a good suggestion, Lee! And the great thing about a clipboard is that it doesn't take up too much space in your bag.

Heather, this is part of the reason why I only print up one-sided business cards--to leave space to write on the other side. I figure if I like it that way, others might too.

Melinda Anderson said...

Thanks for the conference tips! I'll share these with my writer's group.

Jessie Carty said...

I needto try and munch with people more often but sometimes my introversion needs a break!