“What writers’ conference would you recommend? Which one is the best to attend?”
I get this question all the time. I’m guessing that people decide they’re going to “do it right” and hit up a big event — and they are just trying to make sure that they get some serious bang for their buck.
Now, to answer the question, let’s just acknowledge immediately that there is no definitive answer. It will be different for everyone, so we must examine three things: 1) the different kinds of writers’ conferences, 2) how money plays into a decision, and 3) what you want to get out of the event.
Different types of events
General writers’ conferences. These are just what you think they are — writers’ conferences that are general in nature and geared toward all categories and levels of writers. There are hundreds of these nationwide every year, and a lot of the biggest fall under this category.
Writers’ conferences with a specialized focus. There are plenty of these, too. These gatherings have a unique focus to them — and that usually means they are all about romance writing, or Christian writing, or children’s/juvenile writing, or screenwriting (& TV), or mystery/thriller writing. Example: Author Advantage Live – for nonfiction and fiction authors.
Writing retreats. A writing retreat is unique in that the focus is about craft and actually sitting down to write. There are usually no literary agents present, because that is not the purpose of the whole thing. You find a serene location somewhere and just try to focus and write. Lots of MFA profs, etc., teach these things, and there are even several overseas.
Let’s talk money
Yes, money can and should play into your decision. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to drive 20 miles to a conference and be able to come home each night to tuck the kids in than it is to fly to Alaska for four nights. And let’s face it: A lot of events are expensive — and not every up-and-coming scribe can manage the required dough.
The first thing I recommend you do is look local. There are tons of events every year, so there’s a good chance a conference may be near you. Try simply using Google and search “writers conference” and “(city)” or “(state)” and see what comes up. Example: Perhaps you live in Virginia? There are sizeable events in Newport News, Hampton Roads, Richmond and Roanoke. Then there’s the regional SCBWI conference that varies locations between Virginia, DC and Maryland. That’s a lot of nearby opportunities!
Check out the regional chapter sites for the SCBWI (kids’ writers), MWA (mystery writers) and RWA (romance writers). All three large organizations have many regional chapters, plenty of which put on an annual or biannual event.
If money is an issue, consider just attending part of a conference. A lot of conferences have various options that affect your fee — attending dinners, participating in pitch slams, access to special sessions, etc. Pay attention to any and all pricing options.
Lastly — and I don’t know why more people don’t take advantage of this — consider combining a conference and a vacation (or work trip). Two birds with one stone. Got a relative in San Diego or Atlanta? See them and hit a conference on the same trip to save travel costs. Plus, you can write off most of your expenses next April.
What do you want to get out of the experience?
This question, obviously, is key.
Perhaps if you want to just sit down and write — maybe finally start that novel — then an intensive writing retreat is just what you need.
If you’re not sure what you need (perhaps you’re creating a lot of different stories and writing projects), then a general conference sounds like a good bet.
If you’re actively looking for writing critique partners and beta readers, then aim local, so you can meet other local writers and form a group that will pay off with valuable peer edits down the road.
If your work is polished and the only thing on your mind is pitching, then you’re looking for an event that has not only a sizeable number of agents and editors attending — but more specifically, a good amount of professionals who seek the genre/category you’re writing. If you attend a large conference and pay $600 to schmooze with 20 agents, it won’t be of much help if only one or two will consider that travel memoir you’ve composed.
If you want eyes on your work, look for a conference that offers editing of your novel or work. Some even offer a variety of critiques from pros, so you can hear different perspectives and opinions on your work.
If you want to visit someplace beautiful, you can certainly do that. I will rarely turn down an invitation to instruct in Jackson Hole, WY (gorgeous! hiking!) or Las Vegas, NV (craps! more craps!). Certainly, a particular locale can be enticing for one reason or another.
If you want to immerse yourself in your category, seek out a specialized conference. The national events for the SCBWI, MWA and RWA are absolutely huge, and are constructed all around the genre(s), so you won’t be short on relevant sessions or agents who will consider your story. Christian writing and screenwriting conferences can also be a good option, as well.
If your whole goal is “The bigger the better,” I can throw out some of the biggest events in the country. Again, I stress that while big conferences grow large for a reason (they are often awesome), that does not mean they’re the absolute best option for you. Money, location and goals must all be factored in. Plenty of small events are great and have helped attendees have success.
My best guess is that there are approximately 200 writing conferences a year in the United States alone. That’s a lot of options — so take your time, do some research and see what a conference has to offer. If possible, use Google to find testimonials from writers who have been there and done that — and pay attention to what they liked and disliked about an event.
No matter what conference you choose, I simply urge you to go to conferences. Get out there! I am a huge proponent of events, as they are an incredible opportunity to learn, get critiques, meet professionals, and make writing friends for life. They are, without a doubt, worth the effort to attend. If you had personally had a good experience at an event (and you’re not on the organizing committee for the event), feel free to say so in the comments here and spread some objective praise about a great writers’ conference other people may enjoy, as well.
I hope to see you at a conference this year!
Other TWL Guest Posts by Chuck Sambuchino:
This post originally ran in July 2013. We updated it so it’s more useful and relevant for our readers!