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Why a Writers' Conference?  And Which One?

by Marcia Yudkin

Most of the successful freelance writers I know are not social animals, and don't readily splurge on frivolous expenses. So skepticism reigns when it comes to laying out a hundred bucks and up for a day or more of listening, learning and schmoozing. Can a writers' conference really pay off more than the same time spent reading or Web surfing? If so, how? And which conferences are worth the investment?

Having taught at several dozen writers conferences in the last 15 years and having attended a few as a participant, I have some thoughts to offer on why it's worth venturing out of your home office once in a while for a conference. Since conferences differ greatly in content and form, I'll also suggest ways to zero in on the programs designed to fulfill a certain purpose.

Publishing updates. Conferences that feature panels of editors usually inform you about trends in publishing. How has changed the landscape of opportunities for book writers? Does the healthy economy continue to bode well for magazine writers? Expect editors and agents to sound off on these sorts of issues this year from the platform. Panel discussions tend to bring out more current and more candid perspectives than you find in print.

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Specialty focus. Conferences that concentrate on only one area of publishing, such as writing about nature, cats, computers, golf or food, tend to be pitched toward more experienced writers. Specialized writers' associations, of which there are several dozen, usually sponsor these. Florida freelancer R.G. Schmidt attends as many of the conferences of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association, the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America, for instance, as he can.

"The contacts are invaluable," says Schmidt - contacts with manufacturers' representatives, state Fish & Game people, editors and other outdoor writers. And the content is equally worthwhile, he finds. "I never went to one where I didn't learn something. Once Tim Tucker, a prolific outdoor writer, gave a workshop with tips like having your subjects wear brightly colored shirts (because editors like color) and ways to get unusual shots. I'd guess that the accumulation of such knowledge from workshops has doubled my sales."

Wayne Lutz attends the Christian Writer's Conference near his home in Glenside, Pennsylvania every year for similar reasons. "The editors of most of the big Christian publications are there, as well as authors of Christian-oriented books. The editors get so specific in what they are looking for that they practically tattoo it on the participants' foreheads."

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Some conferences appeal primarily to employed writers rather than freelancers, and these provide fascinating glimpses into how the other half lives and works. For example, the National Writers' Workshop, where I've twice presented, sponsored by the Hartford Courant and the Poynter Institute for newspaper reporters, includes sessions on editorial writing, small-town reporting, article structure and literary journalism - topics rarely covered at conferences for freelance writers.

Meeting editors. As the writers I've already quoted attest, getting face to face with editors can provide a career boost. Anita Bartholomew took careful notes at an American Society of Journalists and Authors session five years ago or so when Gary Sledge, a senior editor at Reader's Digest, spoke. A few months later, Bartholomew realized that a story she'd been pursuing for a women's magazine wasn't going to work for them but was perfect for Reader's Digest. Not only did Sledge accept her first draft, she's been writing for Reader's Digest ever since. Naturally she now says the ASJA conference was "worth ten - no, twenty times the price of admission."

Since sessions where editors speak tend to be jammed with writers, some freelancers express disappointment with one-day conferences where the front table gets mobbed after a panel discussion. Los Angeles health and parenting writer Kathy Sena didn't let that discourage her when she introduced herself at an ASJA conference to editors like Janice Mall, then editing first-person pieces for the L.A. Times Life & Style section. Afterwards, Sena sent a story to her, mentioning in her cover letter that they had met at the conference. Mall passed it along to her colleague at the paper's health section, who bought it.

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"I find the feeding frenzy around the panel table a bit crazy-making," Sena admits. "As a panelist since then, I have been put off by pushy people who want to hand me tons of pages. But meeting someone briefly, thanking them for their presentation and telling them you'll be in touch never hurts and it offends no one. And sometimes it pays off!"

One conference tailor-made for magazine writers who don't want to have to elbow their way to editors' attention after panels is the Writers and Editors One on One Conference every spring in Chicago. Open only to writers who can demonstrate their magazine experience through clips, this conference matches up writers with editors at magazines that pay $1 per word and up and have writer-friendly contracts. Not only do attendees sign up for dinner with an editor in groups of eight, writers get at least three 10-minute appointments each with editors they have selected from that year's lineup.

At her first One on One conference, Mountain View, California writer Marie Faust Evitt benefitted greatly from even such a short time face to face with editors for Cooking Light and Westways. "At the meeting with the Cooking Light editor, the first idea I proposed he didn't think would work. He suggested a related topic, I riffed off that, and he liked that new idea." Similarly, the Westways editor wasn't interested in the topics Evitt had brought with her, but mentioned an upcoming family sports issue that Evitt sent in a proposal on. Both meetings led directly to assignments and sales.

Finding an agent. When you're ready to move on to book writing, conferences can help you hook up with a congenial literary agent. Some program rosters include not only agent panels or presentations but 10 or 15-minute private pitch sessions similar to One on One's. One West Coast writer I know described the topic of the self-help book she was working on to immediate enthusiasm from the agent: "When can you get me the proposal? I know I can sell it."

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Re-education in a new genre. Interested in expanding your writing repertoire to fiction, poetry or screenwriting? A writers' conference can provide a concentrated dose of education and reality orientation. Particularly in July and August, some programs provide classroom-like teaching, with manuscripts submitted in advance and intensive instruction lasting one week or two.

Getting charged up. Perhaps the major benefit for you would be a jolt of inspiration or an infusion of perspective on your writerly labors. At the conferences I've attended, I've almost always found something thought-provoking in the keynote speeches by best-selling authors. That might be a startling anecdote, like Sue Grafton saying that learning to write well takes no less time than medical training, or insight into the power relations between writers and publishers - something to be expected at any conference sponsored by the National Writers Union.

Self-development. Just a few conferences focus on developing the inner writer as well as your marketing savvy and writing skills. Chief among these is the annual week-long June conference of the International Women's Writing Guild at Skidmore College in upstate New York. Participants can choose workshops in energy healing, journaling your way back to childhood or coming to terms with money as well as nuts and bolts instruction in fiction, memoir writing, creative nonfiction and journalism.

Relaxing away from home. Sometimes you just hanker to park yourself under some palm trees or away in the mountains and call it an educational trip. Choose a writers' conference in Maui, Montana, Florida, Vermont or even Ireland and you can probably deduct the travel, lodging, food and program fees from your income taxes. In that case, make location your primary selection criterion and consider any of the other benefits I've mentioned as bonuses.

Copyright 2005 Marcia Yudkin.  All rights reserved.


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