How to Conference: 11 Tips for Making the Most Out of Your Next Writing Conference

By Jessica A. Kent
March 7, 2019

Whether you’re headed across the country to AWP, or headed around the block to The Muse and the Marketplace, here’s some guidance for making the best out of your next writing conference.

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TIP #1: Put in the Planning
Don’t wait until you’re on your way to the opening session to finally glance at the schedule. If you intend to roll with it - especially with an AWP schedule that’s the size of something Proustian - that’s fine, and godspeed! But if you want to make the most out of the conference you’re attending, take a look at that schedule and do some advanced path-making. Think of it as designing the story arc for your weekend. Conferences like AWP and The Muse and the Marketplace will be stuffed with options, so you want to get your schedule right. 

TIP #2: Shamelessly Pick Your Favorites
The tendency is to attend your favorites, and it’s easy to do. Fiction writer? Attend all the fiction sessions! Looking to find an agent? Go to all the agent sessions! It’s important to feed that hunger, and let’s be honest - you’re paying a lot of money, so you should lean into your focus area. Be sure to choose the sessions that are going to help you advance your writing and stoke that flame. But don’t be so one-note about your experience. Read on…

TIP #3: Vary Up Craft and Business
Whatever stage you’re in with your writing career, you’re still a writer, and focusing on craft and writerly things, yes? It’s rare that writing programs and MFAs give time to the business aspect of writing, but the business aspect of writing is necessary to turn a hobby into a published dream. While the sessions on small press publishing or agent contracts may sound boring or not what you need right now, stop in anyway. You have sessions to spare, and frankly, writing is the fuel that runs through many gears of publishing. Widen your scope and the publishing world will begin to flesh out to you, and give you context as to your role in it.

TIP #4: Listen to Voices That Are New to You
Similar to the above, spare a few sessions and go to readings or panels you would never first think to go to. In fact, deliberately pick sessions that feel outside your comfort zone. The writing world is vast, and there are so many voices that are different from yours that are contributing to the song. In other words, get out of your silo to cross racial, ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, and ableist boundaries to hear new stories. No, you may not understand the terminology, and no, you may not read or write in that tradition or vein. But writing conferences are the perfect low-stakes opportunity to get exposure to vast variances in the community - so be a student of your fellow writers.

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TIP #5: Get Your Extroverted Friend to Bring You Around the Book Fair (no extroverted friend? read on)
Ahh, the book fair, with endless rows of literary magazines, publishers, writing resources, and, most importantly, swag. You may be tempted to float through a few feet away from the tables, observing from a distance, but don’t. If you have an extroverted friend, go with them around the book fair. They’ll stop at each table and chat, and you’ll get to chat with them, and make some connections. No extroverted friend? Look - you don’t really need one. Stop by the tables anyway. Ask a simple “What’s this?” and off you’ll go. The vendors want to chat about their resources, and you want to learn. Just make sure you devote the time to at least pass by each table and see what the many members of the writing community are working on.

TIP #6: Don’t Forget (How) to Network/Socialize
Speaking of chatting with strangers…writers have that dreaded “introvert” tag that follows them around, right? But a funny thing happens when they all get around one another: We all become normal people, chatting about what we’re working on, and what we’re reading. We love to talk about this stuff! Gosh, there are plenty of easy opening questions when you find yourself standing around a reception table with strangers who happen to be fellow writers: “Where are you from” is always a good one, but “What are you writing?” “What sessions have you gone to?” or “What’s a good book you’ve read lately?” will all suffice. Let the conversation flow, and don’t try too hard.

TIP #7: Go to an Off-Site Event
Writing conferences tend to have a number of off-site events (whether advertised officially or only found on social media). A day of sitting as an audience member and passive participant can get stagnant, so head out to a bar to grab a drink and hear some readings or open mic. Vary up your location, and it’ll give you a recharge. An added bonus is that while the event may be in a place you can’t find or never heard of, and you have no idea how transportation works in this host city, apps like Uber and Lyft exist, and will probably be in that city. No excuse now.

TIP #8: Snacks, Water, Vitamins, Rest…
In the age of self-care, we probably don’t need to remind you to throw a water and a Lara Bar into your bag, but it’s worth repeating. Days can be long, sessions tight, sleep minimal, and sometimes the only quick grabbing of food may happen from the Starbucks bakecase. Take care with your carb intake. Get a salad at some point. Grab a juice with the coffee in the morning, or load up on the continental breakfast fruit at the hotel (you have that conference totebag for a reason). There’s nothing worse than getting a bug during a conference you paid and traveled for (believe me, twice).

TIP #9: Skip a Session or Two to Stare at a Wall, or Stare at Some Local Tourist Sites
Wow, Ok. There’s a lot going on. Take a session block and skip it - even if you feel Ok, or want to power through, just do it. Sit in one of the comfy couches in the lobby of the conference center, or find a coffee shop nearby and grab a latte, and just recharge. Writers are internal creatures by nature - it’s what makes us creative types - and session after session of information intake, the balance of socializing, and the hope that you’ll suddenly run into an agent who will suddenly decide to rep you, will drain you. Go inside your brain and revive your spirit. In fact, step out and take a walk around the city you’re in. Why travel to a city you’ve never been to before to spend three days inside of a conference center, only to go home right after the last session? See the sites and dream up your next story taking place here. In fact, book an extra day or two.

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TIP #10: Bring the Big Suitcase
You’ll buy four times the amount of books you thought you would (most will be literary magazine you never thought you’d buy, but they’re just SO GOOD), and while you can layer them on the top of your suitcase, and fit a bunch in that totebag as a carry-on, just hedge your bets and bring the big suitcase. (Or do some pre-budgeting for shipping costs.)

TIP #11: Enjoy the Time You’re Devoting to Your Writing
Finally, enjoy the sessions, nerd-out on the keynote speakers, get inspired, talk books with friends and strangers, and know that you’re there taking the time for your writing and your passion. Usually a lot of other things come before writing - day jobs, family, commitments, finances - and too often writing is pushed to the margins of the day. But not at this conference, not now. Understand that though it may be for just a few days, everything else now is at the margins, and writing is finally at the forefront.

BONUS TIP: Buy the “Write Like a Motherfucker” Mug
You know you want to. Don’t go past that Rumpus table again - you turn right around and bring that thing home!