What a Writing Conference Is (and Why it Could Be Valuable for Unpublished Authors)


Attendees sitting in chairs at a writing conference

What if there was a way for you to gain a competitive edge when it came to getting your manuscript published… would you take advantage of it? There are many who believe that writing conferences can give you a competitive edge.

Writing conferences are events where authors gather to become better writers and pitch manuscripts to literary agents. They feature lectures, panels, and workshops led by agents, editors, and published authors. Many writing conferences offer manuscript reviews by industry professionals.

This article is intended to provide a definitive guide into understanding writing conferences. It outlines who attends, how to make the most of your investment, and perhaps most importantly, how to manage your expectations.

Table of Contents

Who Attends Writing Conferences?

Two middle grade author attendees at a creative writing conference

Writing conferences primarily advertise to unpublished authors who are interested in improving in the craft of writing. However, the main selling point for writing conferences is that those same unpublished authors will get to interact with literary agents and editors.

Unpublished Authors

Most of the people you’ll meet at a writing conference are unpublished authors who are eager to find representation from a literary agent, not to mention a publishing deal. They’re objective is to network, however, most actively participate in the workshops where the focus is on the craft of writing. They are often open to joining critique groups.

Self-Published Authors

Some conference attendees will be self-published authors or authors who have been published by small, independent publishing houses. The success of their sales will vary, and like unpublished authors, they are often eager to find literary representation and a publishing deal with a Big 5 publisher. They also typically participate in the writing workshops.

Published Authors

Most published authors attend writing conferences as paid guests. It is an excellent way for authors to earn supplemental income along with exposure by teaching a workshop, participating in manuscript critiques, or presenting a general session.

Literary Agents

Like published authors, literary agents are often paid participants at writing conferences. They meet with authors who are looking for representation, participate in panels, and will at times offer manuscript techniques. Even though agents are paid to attend, they are also eager to find new talent to represent.

Literary agents are not allowed to give critiques of manuscripts in exchange for compensation outside of a writing conference. However, they are paid by the conference organizers not by individual writers.

Literary agents also attend writing conferences to meet with editors in order to build relationships for their clients.

Editors

The role of an editor at an event is similar to a literary agent, though there are also key differences. Editors are paid to attend, and typically take part in panels. Some will lead workshops as well. Many conferences ask editors to critique partial manuscripts, which is a valuable service for paid attendees.

Editors at large publishers do not typically review unsolicited or unagented manuscripts. However, many editors at midsized and smaller, independent publishers do and they will attend writing conferences in the hopes of acquiring new books.

Editors will also take meetings with agents, as it is in their best interest to build and maintain relationships in order to acquire the best books.

Illustrators

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more illustrators at writing conferences. Thanks to Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants) and Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) there has been an explosion of illustrated middle grade books. Many of the illustrators are actually illustrator/writers, and if you read the submissions requirements for most literary agents, they are not accepting authors who want to have illustrations. They prefer to work with a single entity who can provide both the words and the pictures.

Like unpublished authors and self-published authors, many illustrators attend writing conferences in search of representation from a literary agent and ultimately a publishing deal.

Conference Organizers

Your host for any writing conference is the conference organizer. Typically, events are emceed by the organizer, who is often the owner of the conference or perhaps the president of a writing organization. Each writing conference will also have a staff. Some might be paid, others will be volunteers, and there will typically be assistance from the hotel or convention center staff.

Conference Sponsors

Writing conferences make the bulk of their revenue from attendee registration fees. One way of supplementing revenue is by having sponsors. Most often, sponsorships consist of local bookstores. However, you may see companies that offer to assist writers with self-publishing, public relationship firms, or even independent publishers.

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Activities at a Writing Conference

A breakout session at a creative writing conference

There are a variety of activities that take place at writing conferences. Sure, there are general sessions where the most recognized speakers present, but there is so much more to any conference.

Registration

Typically, the first thing that you’ll do at any writing conference is register. You’ll sign in and receive your name tag or badge, and perhaps a lanyard. Many conferences offer printed agendas, however there is a trend where conferences are starting to use apps in lieu of paper. You may get a bag and some promotional materials as well.

General Session

A general session is typically held in the morning. It features speakers who are the biggest draws, as well as compelling panels with editors and literary agents. It is one of the few times that every attendee at a writing conference meets together in one room, so they are typically held in a large hall at a conference center, hotel, or resort.

Keynote Speeches

A keynote speech is delivered by prominent speakers who can attract large audiences to a general session. At a writing conference, that is often a bestselling author who will share the story of her success.

Panel Discussions

Like keynote speakers, panel discussions typically take place on a general session stage in front of all the attendees. Many panel discussions at writing conferences feature literary agents and editors. However, at times they will include booksellers, publishing executives, and representatives from organizations like NPD Group.

Breakout Sessions

Most breakout sessions at writing conferences are focused on the craft of writing. Primarily led by published authors, you’ll get to deep dive on subjects like character development, plot structure, and dozens of other topics.

Literary Agent Pitches

The primary reason most unpublished authors attend writing conferences is to pitch their manuscripts to literary agents, in the hope that an agent will offer representation. This typically is the equivalent of a verbal query letter. If the agent is interested in learning more, she will request the either the full or a partial manuscript after the conference ends.

Manuscript Critiques

Different from a literary pitch, a manuscript critique is your opportunity to submit a portion of your manuscript for review by what many conferences term an “industry professional.” In all honesty, the most valuable reviewer is either a literary agent or an editor from a Big 5 publisher. Next would be an agent from a midsized or small publishing company. After that, it’s a bit of a gamble. If you decide to participate in a manuscript review, you’ll want to research who specifically will be assigned to review your manuscript.

Breaks

Why am I bothering to highlight breaks at a writing conference? Because they might actually be the most valuable events the entire time you’re there. Sounds ridiculous., right? Not if you consider that’s where most of the networking takes place. Unpublished authors get to mingle with literary agents, editors, and published authors alike. There’s no pressure. Just conversation, but that’s enough. Building relationships with key people can go a long way.

Mixers and Happy Hours

Like breaks between sessions, mixers and happy hours are great times to network with industry professionals and peers alike. The good news is that most literary agents and editors are paid to attend, and they realize the primary value that they bring is their interaction with unpublished authors.

Meals

Meals are another opportunity to network, but with one key caveat. If you’re successful reaching out to a literary agent or editor prior to the event—or if you hit it off during the event, offer to treat her to lunch or dinner. That kind of personal time could be invaluable in your journey to get published.

Physical Exercise

Writers spend most of our day seated in front of a computer, so I love that many writing conferences are adding activities like fun runs and yoga to the itinerary.

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How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Conference

Middle grade author taking notes at a creative writing conference

There is no guarantee that you’re going to get a return on the money you invest by attending a writing conference, but you can improve your chances.

Bring the Right Attitude

I’ve spent far too much time being miserable because I allowed my feelings to trump the facts. Let me give you an example…

You get a chance to pitch your manuscript to an agent at a writing conference. She listens politely, says it sounds interesting but it isn’t for her, and then she gives you some pointers on how to improve your pitch. How do you respond?

Are you dejected because you were rejected, or do you look at it as a gift because even though she passed on your manuscript, she gave you some great advice on how to make your next pitch better?

It’s easy to be disappointed. I’ve been there. Just remind yourself that it only takes one literary agent to fall in love with your manuscript. Besides, do you really want an agent who only kind of likes your story?

Take Risks

I get it. Meeting new people can be uncomfortable. Networking with an agent simply because she has something that you want can make you feel slimy.

Have you ever noticed that our brains will start to manufacture excuses so we feel better about avoiding an uncomfortable situation?

We talk ourselves into thinking that agents wouldn’t want to bother with us because our book will never be a financial success, so we walk past them so they can focus on unpublished authors with better books.

Don’t believe the lies. You’ve worked hard to get to this point. You have a completed manuscript and you paid good money to be there.

You deserve to spend time with those agents and editors, so do it. Walk right up, introduce yourself, shake their hands and start some conversations.

This is your shot! Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? They openly mock you and everyone in the room starts to laugh? I mean, that’ll never happen but even if it did, who cares!

If you believe in your manuscript others will pick up on your confidence and they’ll want to see what it’s all about.

Define Measurable Goals

The last thing you want to do is think back on your experience at a writing conference and wonder if it was good, bad, or indifferent. One way to validate the experience is to define a set of measurable goals. Here’re examples of goals you may want include:

  1. Attend manuscript critique with an editor
  2. Meet three literary agents
  3. Share a meal with a literary agent
  4. Form or join a critique group

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How to Prepare for a Writing Conference

Middle grade author preparing to attend a creative writing conference

There are three key things that you need to do before attending any writing conference. If you follow these simple steps, you’ll exponentially increase your odds of success.

Ensure That Your Manuscript is Flawless

If you are participating in either a literary agency pitch or a partial manuscript critique, you want to ensure that your manuscript is flawless—or at the very least, as flawless as you can get it.

Please understand, this is not an attempt to trigger a panic attack. No manuscript will ever be perfect, but you’ll know that you’re ready to share it with literary agents and editors when you would be willing to self-publish it and promote it to the world.

Even then, know that you’re going to get feedback about ways to improve your story if you submit it for a critique. It’s important to know that it’s just one person’s opinion and you don’t have to agree with it.

Don’t react emotionally or feel like a failure. Remember that we all have different tastes.

Map Out Your Breakout Sessions and Workshops

Most larger writing conferences offer a variety of tracks when it comes to breakout sessions and workshops. That means during each timeslot, you’ll get to choose the breakout session or workshop that you’re most interested in.

They’re typically published on the conference website, so map out which you’d like to attend. If you have trouble deciding, consider attending the session where the information will best benefit your current manuscript.

Research the Attendees to Make the Most out of Networking Times

Most of the literary agents, editors, and published authors who attend a writing conference are paid to be there. More likely than not, they’ll have images and bio on the conference website as part of the event’s promotion.

However, even if they don’t, a quick Google search will more than likely help you find an image.

 Take a note of which attendees you want to meet, look them up, and then you don’t have to awkwardly look at name badges as you hunt down the key people who could give your writing career a boost.

Whatever you do, don’t be shy. Introduce yourself with a firm handshake and start a conversation like you would with any new person you meet. They’re there to spend time with you, and they understand that. Just be you, and the rest will take care of itself.

Practice Your Pitch

If you can’t make your manuscript sound exciting in 10 seconds or less, you have work to do.

You’ll want to nail down your elevator pitch for when you run into literary agents and editors at networking events. Then, if you plan on attending a formal pitch session, practice a solid 3-minute pitch.

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What to Bring to a Writing Conference

luggage for a creative writing conference

Believe it or not, you can typically leave copies of your manuscript at home. Sure, it might be appropriate to bring a single copy of (or more likely than not, some sample pages from) your manuscript to submit for a critique but those submissions typically occur before the event.

Imagine if even three people at a conference handed an agent 300-page manuscripts to take back to his office. That’s 900 pages they’ll have to pack and carry on an airplane.

Nobody wants to deal with that—especially in a day and age where most solicited manuscript submissions happen over email.

Instead, here’s a short list of things you’ll want to bring:

  • Notebook and pen to take notes (unless you prefer a digital device)
  • Your phone charger and possibly an extension cord or a long charging cable in case you need to charge it during a general session or a workshop
  • Business cards for peers (this one is a bit antiquated and is not critical, but some prefer it)

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What to Wear at a Writing Conference

There is no set standard for what to wear at a writing conference. However, there’s a good chance that the conference you’re interested in attending has recommendations for what to wear on their website.

Personally, I prefer to be comfortable and to dress for the weather. That doesn’t mean I’ll wear shorts and flipflops (although in Arizona, nobody would care), but I typically wear a colored shirt and jeans with comfortable boots or shoes.

If there is a happy hour or dinner, I’ll consider wearing slacks and dress shoes, but not always. Ultimately it comes down to your brand.

Who are you and what do you want to portray to the people you meet? Remember, conformity doesn’t stand out—and standing out is the name of the game when you’re vying for attention.

Ultimately it comes down to your brand. Who are you and what do you want to portray to the people you meet? Remember, conformity doesn’t stand out—and standing out is the name of the game when you’re vying for attention.

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Why You Should Attend a Writing Conference

This section outlines seven great reasons to attend a writing conference. The following section lists seven reasons to skip a writing conference. When it comes down to it, you have to decide if its right for you.

If you’re looking for more, I outlined all fourteen reasons in great depth. You can find them by clicking on this link to an article titled 7 Reasons to Attend a Writing Conference (and 7 Reasons You Shouldn’t).

1) Become a Better Writer

If you’re interested in the craft of writing, most writing conferences provide incredible opportunities to grow through workshops and critique sessions.

2) Learn About the Publishing Industry

You are looking for a better understand the publishing industry because that knowledge will help you better manage your writing career.

3) Access to Literary Agents and Editors

The primary reasons that most unpublished authors attend writing conferences is to pitch literary agents in hopes to find representation or to earn a publishing deal from a publisher.

4) Feedback from Literary Agents, Editors, and Published Authors

A frequent benefit of writing conferences is a partial manuscript critique from a literary agent, editor, or a published author. Those critiques provide valuable insight that can help writers improve their manuscripts.

5) Networking with Your Peers

There is something about the energy of a writing conference that’s invigorating. You’re with hundreds of others who are walking along your same path to publication, and that shared experience is very comforting.

6) Encouragement

When you don’t receive the feedback from literary agents or editors that you’re looking for, it can leave you dejected. However, the encouragement you’ll receive from your fellow attendees will be invigorating.

7) Inspiration

Hearing about the success (and near success) stories of other writings can be inspiring—especially when you realize they aren’t so different from you. It can provide renewed hope.

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Why You Might Want to Skip a Writing Conference

There are quite a few good reasons to attend a writing conference, but there are just as many reasons to skip. The following list outlines some of those reasons. If you are looking for deeper insights, be sure to read an article I wrote called 7 Reasons to Attend a Writing Conference (and 7 Reasons You Shouldn’t).

1) Affordability

If attending a conference isn’t in the budget right now, don’t worry. There’s more than one path to getting published. Also, when you’re budgeting be sure to consider travel costs, as well as room and board.

2) Your Manuscript Isn’t Ready

If you aren’t willing to publish your manuscript today, it’s still a work in progress and you shouldn’t pitch it at a writing conference or anywhere else. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

3) You’re a Square Peg in a Round Hole

If you’re a middle grade writing who is thinking about attending a writing conference without agents or editors who work with middle grade authors, you’re wasting your money.

4) You Have Unrealistic Expectations

If you expect to leave the writing conference with an agent or a book deal, you might as well stay home because you’re almost guaranteed to be disappointed.

5) You Can’t Handle Criticism

Being an author means requires confidence—or at least the ability to shake off criticism. If you’re easily discouraged by feedback—especially from agents and editors, you might want to skip writing conferences.

6) You’re Too Pliable

Implementing quality feedback is one thing, but if you’re willing to make changes to your manuscript every time someone has an opinion, you aren’t ready for a writing conference. You need to balance humility to confidence.

7) You Obsess Over Perfection

If you’re prone to worry more about implementing technical improvements to your writing than you are making an emotional connection with your readers, you may want to hold back from attending a writing conference.

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Writing Conferences for Middle Grade Authors

I made a list to help you find the best conferences for unpublished middle grade authors. However, if you’d like more detail about each writing conference, please visit this page.

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Related Question

What is a writing retreat? A writing retreat is an event where a group of writers travel to a remote location in order to conduct intensive writing sessions over a period of days. Many such retreats take place in shared cabins and last three to four days.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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