Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

writer's conference? here's how to prepare
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(This column is excerpted from Chuck’s latest book, Get a Literary Agent.)

GIVEAWAY: Chuck is giving away a copy of his book, Get a Literary Agent, to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks to enter! (Must live in the United States or Canada to win.) (Update: Lila won!)

If you’re planning on attending a writers’ conference to learn more about writing as well as pitch your book to agents and editors, make sure you brush up on some etiquette and strategy basics before you go.

Being prepared and knowing what agents and editors expect could make the difference between a great pitch and a mediocre one.

I’ve put together this list of do’s and don’ts based on my own experience, but you don’t have to just take my word for it. Keep reading for advice from literary agents themselves on how to make sure you have the best and most productive event experience possible.

Are you ready for your next writers’ conference?

What to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Do practice your pitch in advance. You want to be able to converse with an agent without rambling.
  1. Do be able to explain what your book is about in one sentence. (This is called “a log line.”)
  1. Do go to as many educational sessions as possible to learn from authors, agents and editors — and take notes. You’ll get insights that help to perfect your book and your pitch, and you may learn which agents might be good fits for your book.
  1. Do bring business cards in case an agent asks for one.
  1. Do your best to be friendly and open. Smile!
  1. Do dress the part. You don’t need a fancy dress or a three-piece suit, but don’t come looking like you just woke up. Remember that an agent is looking for a business partner.
  1. Do bring some extra cash. In addition to buying some books at the event, you’ll also want to schmooze and make writer friends. Often, that means gathering at a hotel bar with other attendees and ordering something while you get to know one another. Occasionally these social events attract agents, but they’re also great places to meet writers who, over time, can give you referrals.
  1. Do read other writers’ blog posts describing their experiences at conferences before you go, so you can get a better sense of how to best spend your time. Especially seek out writers who’ve met with agents at the conference in previous years.

What not to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Don’t pass agents or editors any pages during a pitch. Agents can’t carry around sample pages from all the writers they meet. They’d collapse from all that weight, and it would make their suitcases explode.
  1. Don’t come to a meeting with an agent with a long, rambling pitch. Aim to discuss your book and yourself in 90 seconds.
  1. Don’t skimp. Most conferences charge a base fee to attend, and then they charge for add-ons, including pitches to agents, critiques or the fancy dinner with the evening keynote speaker. If you can swing it money-wise, take advantage of all aspects that you believe can help you.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start conversations — whether with industry professionals or fellow scribes. Be bold, but use your best judgment. Don’t pitch an agent in the bathroom or interrupt someone’s conversation to step in and introduce yourself. Creating such an awkward moment will work against you.
  1. Don’t monopolize an agent’s time. If you sit down at a table and an agent joins you and others, know that most if not all of the people next to you will want to chat with the agent. Be respectful and don’t dominate her attention for long periods of time. Hogging an agent’s time doesn’t make a good impression.

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Pitching tips from literary agents

Relax. We are people, too, and we are there because we want to meet you and find someone to represent.  Some conferences do a better job than others in preparing writers for these things, but just remember to be yourself. Act professionally and remember the more relaxed you can be about things, the better for both parties.”

— Elisabeth Weed (Weed Literary)

Make sure I represent your genre to make the best use of your money and time. If you encounter an agent [including me] that dismisses you because they don’t handle your genre, ask if you can practice your pitch or ask their general advice.

“I suggest every writer take advantage of agents at conferences, even if your work isn’t ready; this is good practice, and an agent may ask to see your work when it’s ready. Many of the writers I have signed I have met at pitch sessions.

“My best advice is to practice and hone your pitch well before you attend the conference. Practice out loud, in front of people, and practice a shortened version in case we meet in the elevator. A composed, professional-appearing author will live on in my mind. Focusing your pitch on plot, themes and premise will help you communicate it effectively.

“Lastly, never pitch an agent in the bathroom.”

— Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

Don’t read from a page in your notebook! If I ask you what your book is about and you can’t tell me the plot in a concise, compelling way without reading word for word from your notebook, then don’t bother.”

— Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

“I love when someone meets me with a big smile. Always take a deep breath before you approach an agent — and smile. This makes me feel relaxed and in turn will make the author feel relaxed — and that is the only way you are able to really connect and share your story.

“I’ve had authors sit down with something to prove or even with a bit of anger or defensiveness. This does not work. I spend most of my time trying to deflect this energy and it takes away from the purpose of the meeting. Keep in mind that we are here to meet you and we are hoping to find a match.”

— J.L. Stermer (N.S. Bienstock)

“Relax, make it conversational and not too plot-heavy. Try to condense your pitch into the equivalent of a pitch letter or jacket flap copy. Anything longer is unnecessary for the limited time. Leave time to discuss.”

— Stacey Glick (Dystel & Goderich)

By the way, if you’re looking for a conference, perhaps one of these below is in your neck of the woods. I’ll be presenting at the following events in 2016-2017:

Aug. 12-14, 2016: Writer’s Digest Conference East (New York, NY)
Aug. 20, 2016: Toronto Writing Workshop
Sept. 9, 2016: Sacramento Writers Conference (Sacramento, CA)
Sept. 10, 2016: Writing Workshop of San Francisco (San Francisco, CA)
Nov. 5-6, 2016: Show Me Writers Masterclass (Columbia, MO)
Nov. 19, 2016: Las Vegas Writing Workshop (Las Vegas, NV)
Feb. 26 – March 3, 2017: Writers Winter Escape Cruise (departs Miami, FL)

What’s your best tip for a writer about to attend his or her first writers’ conference?

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Chuck Sambuchino is a staffer at Writer’s Digest Books, best-selling humor book author, and freelance query/synopsis editor. He is the editor of the Guide to Literary Agents and the au... .

Writer's Digest | @chucksambuchino

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  1. Having only attended small seminars, this is a lot of great advice for actual conferences. I especially like the “Don’t” section. I would have been the person showing up reading from a notebook because I’d be too nervous to remember my logline.

    As always, thank you Chuck, for such amazing advice.

  2. This is super helpful.
    I’m attending a writer’s conference in July at Philadelphia, and this gives me stuff to look forward to, and also gives me stuff to prepare.
    Thanks, Chuck!

  3. Thanks, Chuck! I’ve got a writers conference I’m attending in Philly during July, and this is awesome advice.

  4. Great information! I will be attending a writers’ conference in May and hope to be learning as much as I can on finding an agent. Thank you for the advice!

  5. Brilliant tips, as always! I’ve attended some small conferences, but on the plus side they included some free additional events and even a one-on-one with a professional editor. I went to all the additional events, but almost no one else did. Crazy, right?

  6. Great advice.

    I went to a fairly large conference last year and the best advice I have for anyone attending one is to simply be friendly. I know writers can tend to be introverts sometimes, but don’t be afraid to talk to people. I met so many great, encouraging people at the conference and had a great time.

    And if you are a little shy, don’t worry; that’s why they serve alcohol 🙂

  7. Cheryl Gates says:

    Great advice and tips, I’m planning on attending a conference in my area soon and I’m nervous since it’ll be my first one. I’m hoping my tongue doesn’t swell up from being nervous. I’m practicing my pitch and logline to everyone I know…

    Thanks, Chuck.

  8. David Kline says:

    Thanks for posting this. Good, simple suggestions, many of which SHOULD be obvious (not pitching in the restroom) but it’s good to see your list.

  9. Hello and thanks for the tips. I am attending the Chesapeake conference in Arlington in March. This will be my second pitch session and I am looking forward to the opportunity. Can you tell me if bringing a ‘Treatment’ for my romantic/mystery series would be better than a business card?

  10. Great information as always Chuck! I will be meeting you at a conference in April. I still have two question (not sure if this is the place to ask)….Do you mention a subplot which ties into the main plot (is the cause of the main plot) in the query and or/ synopsis? or just allude to and there is a subplot….Secondly, if there is a foreign word or mythologic creature do you just mention the word and not define what it means in the query and/or synopsis?

    One agent workshop on line stated not to allude to subplot in query. What is your take on the above (if you can comment)

    (Trying to get is straight before the conference)

  11. Dennis Goss says:

    Thanks for the great tips. I ‘m headed to the SF conference tomorrow which will be my first. Pitching has consumed my thoughts at the moment so glad to have read your blog.

  12. Jessica Mork says:

    Thanks, Chuck! This information will come in handy at a conference in Minneapolis this April.

  13. Lindsay Carlson says:

    Great tips! I’m a bit nervous about doing my first pitch ever this year, so wish me luck! 🙂

    • Good luck with your pitch. What helped me the most was to talk to as many other writers the night before my pitch. So many people were willing to share stories about the first time they did a pitch and how nervous they were. When you realize that you’re not alone in your nervousness, it’s easier to relax.

      If you’re not an “actor” don’t focus so much on memorizing anything. Just have a couple of sentences prepared that can tell the agent what your book is about in 30 seconds. She will ask lots of questions. Just keep it casual and talk about your book.

      It also helps to do some research about the agency they work for and bring one or two questions related to that.

  14. I found out about Chuck recently, and the volume of great advice, blogs, and publications will help any writer, new or old. I am a new author, and I will be going to conferences and book fairs this year to promote my book, From Woodstock To Eternity. This article is just a sample of the insight he has into the process of finding agents and publishers and general marketing for indie authors. Thank you very much.

  15. Clif Travers says:

    Great advise.
    I wish I had read this before my last conference. I spent a lot of money with no outcome. I won’t make those same mistakes next time.
    Note to self:
    Log line
    Biz Cards

    Thanks Chuck!

  16. I’m about to do my first round of pitches in a couple of weeks, so this was very timely and much appreciated.

  17. I have never attended a writers’ conference, but I would LOVE to!

  18. These are great pointers. I have a basic idea, but I just need to refine it. I’ll have to work on that. One thing I’ve learned, though, it’s always good to at least have a first draft, so you have something to edit.

  19. Kimberly Kauffman says:


    Thank you for the great advice. I do have a question though. Do we bring a copy of our book with us if we self publish it? Or do we just have a story line in a bag waiting in case asked for it?

    Thank you again and I hope to see you in August in NYC.

  20. I’d expand on tip #3 – attend the education sessions even if you think they don’t apply to you and your writing. That session on science fiction could have a great tip on dialogue or the novel-writing session might help you craft an opening for your memoir. My best tip is to be nice to everyone, even if you think they can’t help you. I’ll never forget a conference attendee who wanted to know if I’d published a book. When I said I hadn’t, she walked away! (Guess she’ll never know how many books I’ve *edited*!)

  21. That’s some great advice, Chuck. At some conferences, they offer pitch practice sessions where you can get in front of fellow authors to pitch your book, and they give you feedback. I highly recommend doing those ANY opportunity you get. It gives you a fresh perspective on what’s important in your story. It might also alert you to problems in your plot if you can’t boil it down to a few words or a sentence or two. I know when we stood in line waiting for the pitch slam at the last Writer’s Digest conference in NY, a few of us clustered around each other and just practiced delivery. It really helps and gets you over the jitters.

  22. Having just returned from my first critique session at a large writers’ conference in NYC, I found if you make an honest effort to converse with the person next to you, it will build your confidence when it comes time to pitch,since we’re all in the same (nervous!) situation. As a bonus,you’ll have a friend to share your experience with when the conference is over!

  23. Ellen T McKnight says:

    Excellent advice, Chuck! I’d like to add that the last few conferences I attended also had a Twitter hashtag going during the conference. Participating that way can help with relationship building. It’s also fun. Best of luck to everyone!

  24. Lorraine Greene says:

    I appreciate the wonderful advice as I prepare to attend my first conference this summer. I would much rather be over-prepared than under-prepared and appear to be a bit more professional than I actually am. Thank you!

  25. Much needed words of advice as I am preparing to attend two conferences this spring and summer and hope to have the opportunity to pitch my book. Thank you for sharing your expertise and experiences with us all. It is greatly appreciated!

  26. John E. Blumeyer says:

    Chuck, As one who still hopes to get to a writers’ conference and pitch an agent, I appreciate your guidelines. Your comment about the Log Line–that is what I am trying to work up on the novel I currently have in preparation. I can discuss it, but to get it down to one sentence–I am still having a problem. But, like writing itself, I know I must keep trying and sooner or later I’m bound to get it. Keep up the good work, and keep notifying all of us about these things. Try as we might, we can’t keep everything in mind, and it helps to have you and others keep us posted on these things.

  27. Great advice, Chuck! I’m torn between my usual SCBWI Regional Conference and the Chesapeake Conference, which are on consecutive days. Maybe I can swing both! But either way, I will now have a ‘log line’ in addition to the elevator pitch. Last time I met with an agent, I practiced my pitch in the car on the way to the conference. When I faced one of my fellow conference attendees in person, all I could do was fumble my way through it. Practice makes perfect though, and better than fumbling in front of the agent.

  28. Alisha Benson says:

    Oh wow, this is a great list. My husband leaves for LTUE tomorrow– I’ll share this with him before he leaves. Thanks again! 🙂

  29. D.A. Boersma says:

    Thanks Chuck! I’ve booked a query slot with you in Portland. So see you on February 20.

  30. I’m attending my first conference in May in Tallahassee. Nervous doesn’t even begin to describe my emotions about it. Frankly, I have decided not to try to pitch, have pages critiqued, or any of the other options offered. I will be attending to listen and learn about conferences so that I can be ready for one in the fall.

    My book is almost ready, I think, having had it critiqued on line and in a local writers’ group. I’ve rewritten, edited, and had it beta read. But based on your advice, I will have cards printed, and a log line ready, just in case.

  31. Nancy Brown says:

    Thank you Chuck for all the great tips–I always wonder if agents at these conferences are as motivated as the writers are to make those connections!

  32. Thanks for the tips! I’ve never attended a writers’ conference, so this is a helpful primer.

  33. Thanks for the tips and the insight! I’m looking forward to attending my first writer’s conference this July and I’ll definitely keep this information in mind. The idea of pitching my book is nerve-racking.

  34. Kyle Larkin says:

    This is fantastic, I love reading do’s and don’ts. I’m a little while away from being able to attend a conference, but I’m trying to consume as much info like this as possible. Little tips such as dressing up are great. Keep ’em coming!

  35. Nervousness is definitely a good sign sometimes! Even though the conference I’m planning to attend isn’t until this summer, the butterflies of excitement are flitting around already. A First time experience it will be, so thank you Chuck for sharing your insight! 🙂

  36. I love how most of the posters call you Chuck–you must have a knack for getting people at ease!

    My first conference will probably be the James River Writers’ Conference in October. Your do’s and don’ts are great; but my biggest problem is me, unfiltered. After five decades on this planet I am apparently impervious to improvement.

    What would really be helpful is a list of literary agents who are skilled at, or even enjoy, dealing with eccentric people such as myself. Get all of them and all of us ADHD/substance-abusive auteurs together in a Motel 6 conference room in Atlantic City, and see what comes out on the far end.

  37. No matter what kind of conference you attend, the best thing you can do is have goals for attending.

    That means you have to read the descriptions of the sessions. Research not just the agents, but every speaker. Start following them on social media before the conference starts. Live tweet from the conference.

    Don’t stick close to people you already know. Make a point to sit with strangers at every session and meal. Make notes on the back of business cards and flyers – don’t assume you’ll remember what you talked to them about once you get home.

    But most importantly, identify your goals for being there. Choose the sessions you attend based on your goals and an honest assessment of your experience.

    • Thanks for sharing these great tips, Victoria! I love your point about having goals for attending — knowing why you want to be there is crucial for making the most of your time at a conference.

      TWL Assistant Editor

  38. Thank you for the great advice. I understand that you don’t want to present literary agents with print copies, but what about giving them a USB drive with the first ten pages?

  39. Good stuff.

    The thing every conference attendee should remember is there is nowhere on the planet where it’s easier to make friends than a writing conference. Think about it. Everyone is there for the same reason. You can walk up anyone and say, “Hi, I’m . What’s your book about?” And if they answer, “Oh, I’m not a writer, I’m an ,” that’s just as cool! 🙂

  40. There’s so much going on at conferences – great idea to plan ahead!

  41. Travis West says:

    Kansas Authors Club, this fall in Topeka. Thank you for all of the tips and advice.

  42. Chris Broster says:

    Really useful and will definitely run through these before I attend my next few events. Compare and contrast to follow.

  43. Although I have attended conferences in the past, after two years, I have signed up for an upcoming event. The information you provided was on point and a great refresher. While reading each item in the “Do” list, I found myself practicing #1 and #2 aloud as I pushed past the jitters that crept up. With your advice, on the day of my pitch, I should be as smooth as silk!

  44. Jim Haurylko says:

    Thanks for the timely tips, Chuck.
    Funny how what I learned in my radio/TV and sales career is the same for developing a writing style AND pitching the manuscript: be yourself. And…be brief! ;O)

  45. Nice article. Thanks!

  46. thank you for the insight! I’m so looking forward to going to a conference!

  47. Amy Zlatic says:

    Good, solid advice. Thank you!

  48. Schmoozing is my favorite part of any conference!

  49. I love going to writer’s conferences when I am able to. My first writer’s conference was an LA SCBWI conference 10 years ago. I was completely awestruck and actually cried when Walter Dean Myers and Hope Anita Smith became instant friends and mentors of mine, sharing their lives, and writing processes. Jacqueline Woodson was there and Linda Sue Park and so many others that I just remember being myself and soaking in the rare opportunity to learn from others the beauty behind the hard work regarded as effortless when profound literature enthralls.

    The cost although often times can seem quite steep it truly is an investment. Your tips are great reminders for all of us and I’m excited about the new book as well. Keep it coming, and I’ll keep soaking it in.

  50. Melonie Wilson says:

    Thanks for all the great advice!

  51. I am so new to this that I’m not sure I would’ve thought of anything on this list. I am so happy I came today to Chuck’s article. Thank you so much.

  52. I would also suggest not pitching to an agent before breakfast. Last November I was at a conference and having breakfast in the hotel restaurant when I saw an agent that had yet to get back to me on my partial also having breakfast, but I figured that agents shouldn’t have to deal with “So, have you read my pages yet?” before coffee.

  53. Betty clemens says:

    Great advice. My first pitch session I flunked big time. Then I got back in line with a shortened view and grabbed an agent’s attention. But, not having prepared in advance, I walked out of the session before the scheduled time, missing more pitch time. I thought,”Wow! I’m the first one out” while others were pitching. Not winning! So much advice is sorely needed. Writing is more than paper, pen, and keyboard.

  54. I’m planning on my first conference this summer. This is super helpful. Thank you!

  55. Kellie McCoy says:

    Thanks for the tips! I assumed I should bring copies of sample pages and now know it isn’t necessary or expected.

  56. Thanks for publishing these tips before the conference, not as a post-conference analysis. They focussed me, and calmed me down. It helps to know I’m preparing the right way. Life, business, love — they’re all theatre. Getting your shtick in place before I go will make it more entertaining and effective.

  57. I just recently went to my first Writers’ Conference. I met other authors attending. I went to some phenomenal workshops. But I decided not to pitch an agent. I was worried that my genre did not match and I thought I was ready. Had I been more open to looking for general advice I could have learned even more.

  58. EXcellent list, Chuck! I agree with everything you said 😀

    I don’t know if anyone said this already, but two things that come to mind are these:

    Don’t approach an agent or editor with the thought in your head that EVERYthing is on the line with that particular meeting. THAT is what creates the nervousness, and you don’t want to be nervous—you want to be YOU 🙂

    Know that, even with all the research you may do, all the hopes you may have, etc., you simply cannot predict when someone’s tastes or needs will or won’t fit your work. You can’t force someone or convince someone to like it, and even though you HOPE they will like it, know there’s a good chance they might not OR they might like it, but not enough to take you on, and if you just happen to end up with that rare and wonderful circumstance where you are a “match,” it’s a bonus! It is always good to take on that old adage: “Hope (a little) for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Publishing is slow and it takes time for stars to align 🙂

    The second thing I have to say is VOLUNTEER! If you are at an SCBWI event, if there’s something you can do to help—do it! This takes your experience to a whole other level. You get to know your fellow writers/illustrators by working with them AND, depending on what you volunteer to do, it can help increase nice interaction (not pitching!) with agents, editors, art directors, etc. There are so many wonderful people to meet and get to talk to, relish the interaction and relationships you may develop, always keeping in mind that it’s as much about that (if not more!) than it is about craft and getting published 🙂


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