Writing is, generally speaking, a solitary activity. Sure, working at a busy coffee shop or out of a co-working space gives you access to people, but if writing = work, then when you’re working, you’re very much in your own head.
It’s important for writers to find other people to interact with, of course. We all need friends and social contacts.
But if you write professionally, you must find the right people to engage with from a professional perspective. You might belong to a writing group that shares critiques of each other’s work, or one that is more about accountability and getting stuff done.
You might belong to a professional association that gives you a business network and maybe a place to look for gigs. Or a Facebook group that functions in the virtual networking space.
One opportunity you might be overlooking, though, is writing conferences.
You might not think of conferences as being especially beneficial. But they can be.
Writing conferences are great places to meet other professional writers but also a place to meet editors. You can learn what certain publications are looking for in pitches, and possibly have a chance to connect with editors and publications you want to write for.
Depending on the focus of the conference, you’ll have a chance to go more in-depth on a specific topic or possibly workshop some of your current writing projects.
You might hear from fellow writers about their process or have the opportunity to learn more about the business side of writing. For example, if you’re looking for tips on marketing, publishing, or how to build a portfolio, you can find a conference that covers those topics.
Let’s talk about the benefits of attending a conference, finding the right event to attend, and how you can get the most out of it. We’ll look at strategies to prepare yourself for the conference, what you should do while you’re there, and what to do after you get home.
When you boil it down, conferences are good for two things: learning and networking. Most conferences will have educational sessions, either as keynote speeches, panel discussions, or hands-on workshops.
Depending on the size and format of the conference, there may be multiple tracks, meaning there is more than one session happening at a time and you’ll have to choose. There may be organized lunches or activities, and there will probably be some kind of exhibit hall.
All those events give you the chance to learn from experts and peers in your field, and the opportunity to meet with potential collaborators, editors, and publishers.
You shouldn’t attend a conference simply because you think you’re supposed to attend these kinds of things. If you’re not getting a tangible benefit out of it, it’s not worth the cost and time.
What kind of tangible benefit should you be looking for? Knowledge and contacts. If you’re interested in e-publishing, look for a conference that has publishers in your field on panels. If you’re interested in learning how to pitch food magazines, attend a conference aimed at food writers.
Conferences can also help you develop or expand your network of contacts, as they are good places to meet people you might want to work with, as well as people you can ask for advice.
When I was first starting out as a freelance writer, one of the best things I did was attend a small writer’s conference. In a panel of editors, I learned what these editors were looking for in a pitch and how to write a pitch they would read. I also had the chance to ask writers and editors, both new to the business and long-time experts, for their invaluable advice.
In order to get the most benefit from a conference, you have to find the right writing conference to attend. Now, you may think of the big ones (like BlogHer or BinderCon), but if you live anywhere near a good-sized city, chances are there’s going to be some kind of writing conference in your area.
Large national associations (such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors) have major annual conferences; they may also have smaller, more local conferences throughout the year.
You should also look for a state or local writers’ association, or a local chapter of a national association. Check their events listings for meetings and conferences. You might even find a trade show or book fair that has sessions geared toward writing education or the business of writing. Sometimes these events are open to the public; sometimes you’ll have to be a member of the organization to attend.
A bit of a side note: Joining a professional association can open up opportunities for you in addition to the chance to attend conferences. If all that’s stopping you from attending a conference is becoming a member, consider that if you have the ability and resources to join, you’re likely to get more benefit out of it than just the conference.
Go broad, or go narrow. You can look for conferences that are about writing (or editing or blogging or freelancing); they will probably have different specialized tracks to choose from once you register.
Or you can look for conferences that focus on a topic or region. (My personal favorite? The Southern Food Writing Conference. It coincides with the International Biscuit Festival. Just sayin’.) If you’re hoping to learn which editors to pitch in a narrow field, attending a focused conference might be better.
You can’t attend every conference. If you’re like every other busy writer/freelancer, your schedule and finances probably allow for one, maybe two, conferences a year. So do your homework before you register — you want to pick a conference that fits your interest and focus. Again, make sure there’s a tangible benefit to attending; otherwise, it’s not worth the investment.
Cost is always an issue in finding the right conference. Even if the conference is in your town, there’s still the registration fee. If you have to travel, then you’ve got added costs for the whole event.
If you can’t cover the registration fee or travel costs for an event, here are a couple of things you can try.
A conference should be easy, right? Follow the agenda (or pick your sessions wisely if there is more than one track to the conference). Be on time for the sessions. Ask good questions if you have the opportunity.
But think about more than just the advertised sessions. The thing about a conference is that you go to learn, but you also go to network.
I know, I know. That means you have to spend a day or two or three doing lots of talking to other people, which may or may not be your thing.
About your own work.
There might be dinners.
Or social events.
Bus rides where everyone seems to know everyone else.
Breakfasts with other people, and we all know that’s hell even if Sartre didn’t say it that way.
Buck up, buttercup. Remember, almost everyone else at your event is also a writer, freelancer, or entrepreneur of some kind. Which means they feel very much like you do. Networking with peers (especially if those peers are experts and published authors and people you’ve always wanted to meet) can be nerve-wracking if you don’t enjoy it or if you feel out of your depth.
I’ve learned that one of the most freeing things at a conference is to be a first-time attendee. If you don’t know anybody, it doesn’t matter who you talk to. You can talk to everyone, no matter how “important” they are.
Being a first-time attendee puts you in the unique position of being able to “accidentally” chat with the editor-in-chief of The Washington Post and have people think it’s charming instead of pushy.
Pro-tip: The standard rules for talking to people apply here. Be kind, be attentive, ask more questions than you answer, don’t interrupt a conversation.
Don’t be afraid to say that you’re new to the conference or to the organization, even if you’ve been writing for a long time. If you’re new to the field, say that, too. If you’re looking for advice, mention that. People want to help, and if you’re open to it, you’ll find people willing to give you a hand.
Listen — to the speakers, to group conversations, to the person you’re chatting with in the hallway during the break between sessions. Even if you think the conversation isn’t applicable to what you’re working on, take mental (or actual) notes. All knowledge is useful.
It’s good to put together a bit of a game plan before you get to the conference. Is there someone you want to meet? An editor you want to pitch? Set one or two goals, and make sure you get those things done.
On the flip side, a lot of the good stuff at a conference happens outside the scheduled sessions. Save some time to just chat with people during breaks. Or grab lunch with a group outside the conference hall.
You’ll probably spend some of your time at the conference working. Plan for that. Block off an hour or two first thing in the morning, before things get started, to get some work done.
If you need to step away and check email, know that everybody else will be doing that, too. But if you can, don’t use every break to check email. Remember, that’s when the interesting stuff happens. You’re probably going to have to work some, and you’ll be in good company. But if you miss all the interesting stuff at the conference because you’re working, you lose out on the main reason you spent all the time and money to attend in the first place.
Don’t count on getting work done at the end of the evening, at least not if your conference includes a dinner event.
As part of your game plan, have some kind of system set up before you go: a good notebook in which to write notes, and some sort of way to collect cards or contact information.
You don’t have to have business cards, either. If you’ve got them, that’s great. But if not, take the other person’s email (write your own note next to it reminding you what the two of you discussed!), and then send them an email.
Because lists are good, here’s what you need to remember to conference well:
And that brings us to what you should do after the conference.
Your follow-up after a conference can be just as important as the event itself. If you made contacts, send them a note. Thank them for your conversation or ask them a follow up question.
The tone of your follow-up contact will depend on your in-person conversation, but regardless, you should follow up. If you asked an editor if you could pitch a story, make sure you send that pitch. If you had a great conversation with someone about being a podcast guest, make sure you send a note that references that conversation.
Your follow up should be timely — you don’t have to do it the day the conference ends, but you shouldn’t wait longer than a week.
Some of the best networking advice I’ve ever received was to focus on making friends, not business contacts. In other words, don’t go looking for someone only to help you in your business; look for people you genuinely connect with.
Your post-conference contacts should be in that same vein. Follow through with any emails you promised to send, and then touch base with anyone else you want to stay in contact with. You’re forging new business relationships through these contacts, so treat them like you would any contact with a potential new partner or client.
As a professional writer and entrepreneur, writing conferences and other events represent a great opportunity to learn and network.
You might find a great, large conference with multiple tracks, or you might focus on a narrow subject or location. Either way, showing up with a game plan will help you get the most out of the event.
Since these kinds of events are often expensive, look for options or alternatives that let you take advantage of the event at a discount, either by early-bird registration or by volunteering to staff the event.
Have a way to take notes and track contacts, and make sure you follow-up on any plans to pitch, questions to ask, or contacts to foster.
Learning new skills or new information and expanding your professional network is worth the time and effort, if you choose a conference wisely. So, go get your conference on!
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.