15 Ways to Make the Most of a Writers’ Retreat, Workshop, or Conference

This is a very common scene at writing conferences./Big Stock Photo

This is a very common scene at writing conferences./Big Stock Photo

Last week I wrote about the differences between writers’ retreats, workshops, and conferences; how to choose between the three; and why you should go. Maybe I’ve convinced you to give one of the three a try. Great! But how can you make the most of that experience?

Here are 15 ways:

  1. Pick one that fits your goals &/or genre.
  2. Research speakers beforehand. Check out their websites, blogs, books, etc.
  3. Bring and trade business cards/illustrator postcards. At some conferences, I’ve traded lots of cards, and at others I’ve traded very few, if any. But, it’s better to have the cards and not need them than vice-versa.
  4. Wear layers. Conference rooms can either be very hot or very cold.
  5. Look for past years’ photos of the conference online to see how attendees dress. Attire may be casual, business-casual, or business. Some conferences will also have a formal banquet and/or a themed costume mixer/dinner.
  6. Be friendly and interested in others. Mingle. Introduce yourself, even if it’s only to the person next to you in the lunch line.
  7. Talk with the speakers. But, give them privacy when they’re on the phone or in the bathroom.
  8. Refrain from pushing manuscripts on other attendees or speakers. Conferences are for education and connections, usually not sales. Focus on what you can learn! However, if you find someone compatible, you might agree to become critique partners.
  9. Volunteer to help the conference committee. It is easier to get to know others who are active in the organization, as well as the speakers, if you spend time with them and show you are willing to help and to learn.
  10. Pay for a critique. Conference critiques are fairly inexpensive. Listen, ask questions to clarify, don’t ask to submit the whole thing, and don’t argue.
  11. Have realistic expectations. It is very rare for a writer to make a sale at a conference. More likely agents or editors might ask the writer to email a manuscript or a partial manuscript to them. And it’s even more likely for writers to realize their manuscripts need more work before they are ready for submission.
  12. Make your own schedule to fit your needs. For example, if you are writing and you’re on a roll, feel free to skip a session to keep writing. It’s your conference–make it work for you. Also, some conferences sell recordings of the sessions. It’s worth it to buy them to listen to any you miss, or to re-listen to later.
  13. Make a goal (perhaps to talk with three people, or to find out how to write a query letter, or even to talk to an editor without freaking out). But stay open to the unexpected good things (like talking to the person next to you and learning they love the same books you do, or getting an autograph and maybe even some encouragement from a well-published author, etc.).
  14. Be prepared to experience a range of emotions. You might experience information overload. You might be very excited to make friends with people who love the same books you do and who love to write. You might be very excited to learn how to improve your writing or to learn the ins and outs of the business. You might not be able to sleep because your mind is racing. Or you might despair because you realize your writing isn’t as good as you thought it was. You might be crushed when you don’t receive that hoped-for contract. So, be prepared to experience both the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. And, be prepared for the let-down when you get home and you deal with exhaustion and your regular life. REMEMBER, IT’S NORMAL.
  15. After the conference, submit manuscripts, send thank-you notes to speakers and conference planners, and follow-up on social media or email with all your new contacts.

What are other tips I should include?


  1. lsand2014

    Thanks, Deb. All great advice and insights. I have experienced every emotion in #14! 🙂 It was great to see you in Fargo (congrats on your first visit to North Dakota!). Linda Sand

    • Deb Watley

      Thanks, Linda! I enjoyed my first trip to Fargo and getting to see you again! I’ve also experienced all those emotional extremes–at least now I know to expect them.

  2. Jane Heitman Healy

    This is a great list, Debbie! While you may not make actual sales at conferences, I have definitely made contacts that helped me make sales to them after I returned home. Remember that editors & publishers attend conferences looking for good writing, and don’t be afraid of them!

  3. dyane

    Once again, this really is an awesome list. I can only share my personal experience, but since many creative people have mood disorders it might help. I have bipolar disorder & thanks to meds and exercise it has been totally stable for 2 years until I attended the Catamaran Conference. When I got there, I guess the stimulation & excitement went through the blood/brain barrier and my medication’s (powerful) effect! I became hypomanic an only slept a couple hours the first night. Thank God I had an emergency Seroquel pill with me, which helped, but I should have brought more for the remaining 4 days of the conference. My psychiatrist told me I could have called him and he would have phoned in a prescription near the conference, but I didn’t think it was that bad. In retrospect, I should have taken him up on it to be safe. It all worked out fine, but now I know that conferences can do this to me! A good friend of mine who has bipolar 2 had a similar experience following mine, and she was only at a conference for one day(!!!) so that was telling as well.
    Thanks again for writing this, Deb! 🙂

    • Deb Watley

      Thanks, Dyane! I’m glad everything worked out okay for you at the conference! Until your responses I had no idea that the stimulation at conferences could trigger highs at that level. And you’re right, many creative people do deal with mood disorders, so this is something that should be talked about so people are aware of the possibility.

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