Writing Conference Advice
(A version of this article appeared in The Writer magazine.)
HOW TO CHOOSE A WRITING CONFERENCE
by Erika Dreifus
When you attend a writing conference, you invest substantial time, money, and energy in your writing career. And given the plethora of conferences taking place these days, selecting one to attend can seem overwhelming. As you consider the many conference opportunities that are available to you, you’ll find it helpful to take a step back. Spend time considering six basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? The answers will help you select an appropriate, enriching conference.
Who attends this conference? A conference that requires applications, reference letters, and writing samples may be geared for more experienced writers, while one with an “open admissions” policy may be particularly welcoming to beginners. Which environment is better for you at this stage in your writing career? And who teaches at the conference? Read those faculty bios carefully. According to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) “Hallmarks of a Successful Writers’ Conference,” faculty should be “accomplished, active and knowledgeable in their area of specialty.” Consider, too, how many people will be attending the conference. Will the event afford you the small and focused (or, conversely, large and diverse) community you may be seeking? If you’ll be participating in a workshop, how many others will be in your group? The AWP Hallmarks note that workshops should maintain “a good faculty-to-student ratio, not to exceed 1-15.”
What is the conference’s purpose and focus? Is it, for example, a week-long event emphasizing workshops in which participants critique their classmates’ work guided by a faculty leader? Or is it, perhaps, a one-day series of lectures or panels on issues concerning craft and/or publishing? Does it offer opportunities for writers who have completed book proposals or manuscripts to meet and pitch agents and editors? Does the conference program encompass writing in multiple genres, or does it seem geared to a specialized group of magazine freelancers, mystery writers, or poets? In other words, how does the program’s content meet your personal goals and needs as a writer?
Are you looking for a program located near your home community? Or are you perhaps seeking to combine your conference adventure with travel to a city, region, or country you’ve always dreamed of visiting? (My one and only trip to Prague happened when I received a scholarship to a summer writing conference held there.) Some conferences boast of their tranquil, rural settings; others advertise their big-city attractions. Which are you looking for? Lodging options, too, can vary. You know yourself. Find out what kind of place you’ll be calling home for the conference’s duration (a hotel room? a dormitory?), and decide if it appeals.
When is the conference taking place? Consider how flexible your schedule might be. And if you’re determined to attend a particular conference, be sure to check its calendar: Dates can shift from year to year. Note deadlines for conference fellowship or scholarship applications. Typically, such deadlines fall well in advance of the actual conference.
Conferences are filled with logistics. How well are these anticipated and explained on the Web site or in printed materials? How quickly and helpfully do conference representatives respond to your questions? To some extent, the “how” of your conference experience will be up to you, but there are many ways conferences can make things easier for their attendees. The AWP Hallmarks recommend, for example, that conference facilities should “keep participants within walking distance of all official events,” or provide dedicated transportation to events that are taking place “off-site.” As someone who’s not especially fond of driving, I’m always grateful to conferences that heed this advice!
First and last, think about why you want to attend a writing conference. To generate new work? Revise existing projects? Pitch your manuscript to an agent or editor? Network with your peers? Escape from everyday distractions? How do your hopes for a conference match with what a given conference appears to offer?
Considering all these questions from the start will help you sift through your options and allow you to make the most of your conference experience.
Some Conferences I Have Attended and Endorse
- American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) Annual Conference
- Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Annual Conference
- Iowa Summer Writing Festival
- The Muse and the Marketplace (Grub Street, Inc.)
- Paris Writers Workshop
- Prague Summer Program
- Taos Summer Writers’ Conference