I have just returned from Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, an annual event I thoroughly enjoy each time. Swanwick is an annual week-long writing conference at the Hayes conference centre in Derbyshire. In my Twitter feed, I describe it as ‘a week of writing courses, workshops and friendship in a lovely Derbyshire setting’.
In this article, I will discus the pros and cons of attending an event like Swanwick, what I’m calling a writers conference. However, I am not sure the Swanwick organisers would call their event a conference even though it fits most definitions. (Many organisers seem to be calling their events ‘festivals‘ these days.) So to be clear, let’s first clarify what I mean by a writer’s conference.
What is a writers conference?
Writers conferences are annual gatherings all across the world where writers come together to learn from successful authors, literary agents, and editors. They are bigger than a single course or workshop, but other than that the sky is the limit regarding the form they take. They could consist of a single day or even a single morning or afternoon, and can last up to several weeks. If they last two days or more then accommodation and meals are usually provided as part of the price so you stay at the conference venue.
Writers conferences usually include some or all of the following:
- courses and/or workshops on any aspect of writing, for example writing craft or the business side of writing
- talks and/or panel discussions by authors/editors/agents/others
- opportunity to pitch your manuscript to an editor
- opportunity to obtain a manuscript critique
- networking opportunities
- writing contests and competitions
Longer conferences, like Swanwick, often contain lots of fun things on the programme as well as the serious courses and workshops, and they feel a lot like being on holiday.
This article doesn’t address online writing conferences, although they are probably a good alternative if you are unable to attend a ‘live’ one.
So without further ado, here are the pros and cons of attending a writers conference.
Pros of attending a writers conference
1. Learning. There is always something to learn from every course, workshop or talk. Bigger conferences usually have several courses or talks scheduled at any one time and you can pick the one best for you, creating your own unique programme. There is also much to learn from general chitchat. You hear about others’ experiences in the writing profession, for example traditional publishing versus self publishing.
2. Networking. This is a fancy word for just meeting people and interacting with others. You can go at it very seriously and plan who you want to talk to, write up notes of every conversation, give out business cards etc. Or be more relaxed about it. It’s up to you. Just don’t be a pain. We’ve all heard the stories of pushy authors pestering agents, even sliding manuscripts under toilet doors. Don’t do it.
3. Inspiration. You will hopefully leave inspired and pumped to get writing and stuck into projects old and new. That’s what happens to me and others have told me it happens to them too.
4. Validation. For the duration of the conference you are referred to and treated seriously as a writer. This may not sound like a big deal but many writers don’t actually think of themselves as writers. They don’t feel the title applies to them somehow, especially if they aren’t published. However, if you write you are a writer, end of story. Conferences aid the shift of mindset required in order to call yourself a writer and believe it.
5. Opportunities to pitch and obtain critiques. If these opportunities are part of the schedule you could find them extremely valuable. Writers have been known to get agents and publishers at conferences.
Cons of attending a writers conference
1. Expensive. At least they can be. Some conferences cost more than others and you need to factor in the cost of getting there too. Be aware that there may be grants or cost reductions available for those on low incomes or benefits or for young people/students. Swanwick offers several Assisted Places every year as well as a scheme for people aged 18-30.
2. Intimidating. It’s never easy going somewhere new, especially if you’re on your own. But remember that even old hands had to come for the first time initially and we’re all there for a common interest. Most writers are introverts so they understand how hard it is to put yourself out there.
3. Frustrating difficulty level. If you’re an experienced writer it can be frustrating if the courses/workshops are aimed at novices, and vice versa.
1. Do your research.
There are many writing conferences out there and you need to choose one(s) right for you. I would start small if you’re new to conferences, perhaps with a local one. In the UK, some of the bigger ones are:
Study the programme to see if the courses and workshops cover areas you’re interested in or that you want to develop. Also, try to gauge the difficulty level. Is it pitched at the right level for you? Is it within your budget and how will you get there? Check what meals and/or accommodation are included.
Check your expectations. Don’t expect to meet lots of agents and editors because they might not be there, especially if the programme doesn’t contain pitching and manuscript critiques. For example, Swanwick is a conference peopled in the main by writers rather than agents or editors but the camaraderie is what I love about it. It is one of the most friendly and welcoming places I have ever been.
2. Know why you are there.
I recommend you think about why you are going to your chosen writers conference and plan how you’re going to get the most out of it. You may be going to learn as much about the craft of writing as possible, in which case you should ideally go through the programme in advance and plan the courses and workshops you’ll take, and which talks you’ll go to.
Alternatively, you may be going to try to network and talk to as many different people as possible, in which case your approach will be different. You may be going just to enjoy yourself and the plan is to have no plan, which is equally fine.
Conferences with a really packed programme can be exhausting if you try to do it all, so pace yourself and don’t try to attend everything if your energy is flagging.
3. Embrace going alone.
You may end up having a more productive time and talk to more people if you go alone rather than with a friend. This is especially true if you put yourself out there and sit with other people for meals and in the lounges. There will be many people also on their own so you will never be short of people to talk to.
So that concludes my rundown on writers conferences. Let me know you thoughts in the comments below!