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    The Nitty Gritty Guide to Writers' Conferences

    So you want to be a writer. You've been writing alone and reading Writer's Digest but you're feeling the urge to take things a step further. You're wondering whether to take a class; you're tempted by the writers' retreats in the classifieds; and you are overwhelmed by the idea of a writer's conference. What could you expect to get from any of these?

    There are broad differences between a conference, a workshop and a retreat, although each may incorporate some common aspects.


    In general, a workshop is a craft-based learning opportunity. They range from one-day workshops, to on-going classes, to a multi-day (perhaps week or two-week long) on-site course. Workshops are designed to elicit feedback from your peers and the teachers on your work, and to help you improve or understand an aspect of the craft. You must be willing to give and take constructive criticism.

    Workshops may be taught by writing teachers, or they may be in the form of a master class by a published writer. Don't assume that one is automatically a better option than the other. There are great writers who cannot teach and vice versa.

    One Day Workshops will usually consist of different sessions, in-class assignment and pre-written assignments. The Workshop guidelines may ask you, before you arrive, to submit a number of copies of a piece to be critiqued. You may also receive a package of other people's writings that you are expected to read and be ready to critique on the day.

    On-Going Classes offer the opportunity to meet regularly with a group of writers that you come to know. They are often found at local colleges and schools. They offer a chance to build camaraderie with other local artists. This sense of community can offer on-going support and inspiration. These classes are unlikely to be as intense as a one-day or multi-day workshop.

    Multi-day Onsite Workshops will feature a mix of sessions, each with a different focus. They feature exercises, often physical and dramatic as well as literary. There will be a mix of pre-written and in-class exercises and you will be expected to read and critique other writers' work.

    It is likely that you will have to travel to one of these workshops, and that accommodation will be offered. Do try to stay on-site with the other writers. This offers camaraderie and a sense or retreat from the world that allows you to focus on being a writer.


    A conference is usually broader than a workshop. While a conference may feature how-to workshops on the craft of writing, it may also feature panel discussions and seminars on the business of writing, or on aspects of the craft. These seminars are not designed to give individual feedback but to teach and inform, suggest resources and give writers access to the experts. Conferences often feature a contest and award ceremony. This may be something you can enter a piece in before the event, or it may be based purely on nominated pieces. A conference is also likely to feature "One-on-one" sessions. These are short, face-to-face meetings with an editor, agent or other special guest. These can be an invaluable way of making first contact with an agent. The best conferences attract many New York agents hoping to find fresh talent.

    One-day conferences are usually themed (for example 'Write To Publish' or 'Writing for the Christian Market'). They will feature a number of seminars on different aspects of the theme. 'Write to Publish' might feature a seminar on writing a killer query letter for women's magazines, a panel discussion on what editors are looking for today, and an inspirational session on how to plan, write, and pitch articles on seasonal holidays.

    A one-day conference is more likely to feature 'experts' (i.e. other writers) than agents and editors.

    They usually start early (with an informal breakfast and registration between 8 and 9 am) and end between 4 and 6 pm. You may want to consider an overnight stay at least the night before, if you have any distance to travel.

    2-3 day conferences will usually be held over a weekend (Fri-Sun). These events are likely to feature agents and editors of publications as well as small publishers, and perhaps representatives of larger publishers. These larger conferences may also have a theme, but it will tend to be more conceptual than specific.

    Multiple seminars, panels and workshops will be offered during each time segment of each day. This means you must study the program and decide which events you want to attend. You may be able to sign up for these events before the conference, or you may simply sign up on the morning of the events. These are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, so it is best to register early, or turn up early each day.

    Seminars are usually presented by a single expert and will be very focused. They may feature tricks and tips, success stories, inspiration and/or resources. If you are attending seminars by a publishing professional, you should expect to learn about 'dos and don'ts', industry trends, what's selling or how to attract the attention of people in the speaker's field.

    Panel discussions will feature 3 or more experts, teachers and/or practitioners discussing a topic. These are interesting for keeping up with industry trends and opinions. They can also spark some interesting debates.

    'One-on-one' sessions are a chance to have a 5-10 minute meeting with an editor, agent or other professional. Again, these are sign-up events, on a first-come, first served basis. Agents may wish to see a few pages of your work (see conference guidelines). At minimum, you should be prepared to give the agent a 2-sentence synopsis of your book and why they might want it. (Or you should be willing to use your time asking for help with this!). This session will go quickly, so know what you want to achieve before you go in. If successful, the agent or editor may ask you to send a sample of your work. This is infinitely preferable to sending a blind query. This way, you can remind the agent that you met face to face, and they are more likely to take a serious look at your submission. They know that they have already determined that it might be something that fits their needs.


    A writer's retreat is, as you would expect, a place where you can go to finish up work on that novel or short story, in a nurturing environment. Structured retreats often feature morning writing exercises and even stretching or yoga sessions to loosen you up for the day. There will be opportunities to attend workshops, communal meals and discussions. There will also, however, be plenty of time to return to your room and simply write. Retreats are usually in bucolic settings, often on university campuses during vacations or remote country locations. Accommodations are usually basic, but comfortable. The organizers will lead the activities.

    More Information

    Just because they are named 'Conference' or 'Workshop' does not mean they stick to any of the rules above. You may find 'conferences' which are mostly workshop-based and 'workshops' that are a string of seminars.

    To find conferences, use the great resources at Shaw Guides. This site lists thousands of conferences, workshops and retreats and can be a little overwhelming if you are just browsing. It is good for finding things in your area or at a particular time of year, or with a particular focus. It is a good idea to subscribe to their email updates, although the updates do notify you only a month or so in advance of events, which might not be enough notice.

    If you are a member of a writer's organization, they may have information on events. Larger organizations, like the Romance Writers of America sponsor their own conferences and workshops.

    Check your local papers and college guides to find events and classes.

    Look in writers' publications such as Writer's Digest and literary magazines, for advertisements. Also, check out your favorite writer's websites and newsletters for listings.

    Copyright © 2002 Julie Duffy

    Julie Duffy is host of The 21st Century Publishing Update and a frequent contributor to Writer's Digest and other writers' magazines.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

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