Tips for Attending a Writing Conference



Our SCBWI OK Spring Conference is a little over a month away, and it will be here before you know it. I look forward to this fun-filled weekend every year.

Are you attending a conference this spring? If so, are you ready?

Do you know what to expect?

Whether this is your first conference or your 30th (give or take a few) you can always use some good ideas to make the most out of your jam-packed day.

Here are some tips I’ve scrounged around among my dozens of conference folders, notebooks filled with years of furious scribbles of knowledge, and just words of advice passed along from my elders. I hope you find them helpful as you prepare for this spring’s conference season.

  • Do your research – You’ll get more out of the conference if you’ve read up on the speakers and know something about their work beforehand. If they are on social media, follow them. (You can see a list of all of our speakers and where to follow them in my previous post here.)
  • Know how to talk about your own writing – Practice your elevator pitch until you know it well enough to ad-lib. Be able to talk about it conversationally. DO NOT try to memorize it. One false stumble can lead to panic. I’ve seen perfectly composed writers turn into blubbering messes because they lost their exact wording. DO NOT LET THIS BE YOU!
  • Say hello to a stranger and start a conversation – Here’s a great opener that’s sure to work in a room full of authors: “What do you write?” or “Tell me about the project you’re working on.” Because that’s what writers do when they get together, they talk about their writing.(Another good reason to know your pitch.)
  • Take business cards if you have them – Networking is an important part of conferences. After you receive a card yourself – during a free moment later – jot down something about that person on the back to help you remember them better. It could be something about their manuscript, what they look like, or anything memorable you discussed. (Here are a couple of sites where you can design your own cards: charges a small fee and has many designs at no cost.)
  • Dress in layers – Cardigans, jackets, and scarves can be your best friends at conferences. In the morning, the room may start out freezing cold, but as the day goes on and all of those bodies heat up the conference space, you may find that you start getting a little too warm. Layers, my friend. Trust me.
  • Bring some spending money – Of course you’ll need money for food and possibly lodging. But more importantly, there are almost always fantastic books available for purchase and the authors who wrote them are usually available to sign them for you! (I don’t need to tell you what fantastic gifts personalized books make, either. Right?)
  • Be courteous and professional – Everyone wants a chance to interact with the speakers. Believe it or not, the speakers also want to talk with you. They just don’t want to receive an unsolicited copy of your manuscript from underneath the bathroom stall. At our conference, everyone has lunch at a table with either a speaker or a published author. It’s a fantastic opportunity to ask industry questions in a smaller group setting. Make sure you keep your conversation appropriate and allow others at the table to have a turn asking questions. That’s right, share the speakers. They are there for everyone.
  • Participate! Ask questions during Q&A sessions, attend pre- and post- conference events, make a writing date for after the conference with a new friend. Get to know your local tribe of writers and the speakers. Our writing community is smaller than you think and you never know what connection will lead to something amazing. Also, writing can be a lonely endeavor; we can all use every bit of support we can get.
  • Recognize your opportunities – If you get a critique or opportunity to pitch, take some time (I mean several days at least) to let the comments sit with you before deciding your life is over and you’ll never write again. Ever. Many of us have this dream that we will be that rarest of rare finds and be offered representation or a book deal right out of the gate. Most of the time, what agents and editors offer when they critique our work is an opportunity to improve our work. This is no small thing. You never know when these insightful suggestions can turn a not-so-fantastic manuscript into a dazzling one. One that can lead to a big fat ‘yes’ a little farther down the road.

Have you any tips you’ve acquired that work for you? What’s your favorite part of going to a conference?



12 thoughts on “Tips for Attending a Writing Conference

  1. Great advice, Valerie!

    I’d add that it’s a good idea to be generous and remember that everyone is there to learn. To be blunt, you’re not the center of anyone’s universe but your own.

    Let others have a chance to speak to the speakers. If you constantly bring the conversation back to yourself, you will make a bad impression on the speaker. There’s a rumor that a speaker once told an Oklahoma SCBWI member that said speaker wouldn’t work with another writer if said other writer sent said speaker the best manuscript in the world. Life is too short. You will make a better impression by being helpful and pleasant. This is not to say you can’t pitch your book if the opportunity comes up, but if a speaker asks what you’re working on, give your elevator pitch, and if the speaker seems interested, offer a card. Then step aside. You’ve had your turn.

    If a speaker is nice to you, it doesn’t mean that the speaker thinks that your book is the best ever and that the speaker will publish it. It means that the speaker has good manners. It is easy to get too excited about a polite comment. Dang, Is that a picture of me several years ago, sure that this meant I was soon to be published? Like I said, we’re all there to learn.

    Offer someone a seat. Give someone a smile. Help someone out if his pen goes dry.

    Be kind to those in charge. It’s hard work to put on a conference. If you don’t love the food, don’t say so. If it’s too warm or cold, it’s okay to mention it, but don’t harp on it. Some hotel conference rooms are just like that.

    Don’t ask anyone, including published authors from Oklahoma to critique your work. Especially not that minute. This is not the time to pull out a manuscript and say, “It’ll only take you a minute.” No, it won’t. And really, what if your manuscript is awful? Do you really want the public humiliation? And if experienced published writers spent all their time doing (free) critiques, they wouldn’t have time to write.

    Do seek out others and ask about forming critique groups. Critique groups can be a wonderful help in improving your writing. (They don’t help so much if it’s the blind leading the blind, however).

    Enjoy being around other like-minded creative people. Mingle, meet people. You may find some of your best friends there. I did.

    Sorry to post such a long response. But you did ask… 🙂

  2. Okay, one more thing. If you’re in a group and others are hesitant to talk to the speaker (it happens), it can be a great help to bring someone else into the conversation, by saying something like, “Valerie is working on the most interesting middle grade mystery about a kid who overcomes his fears to find out who the bad guy is. Valerie, why don’t you tell her about that?” Or the more vague, “Gwen, what are you working on?”

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