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Friday, April 1, 2011

Six Tips for Getting the Most from Writers' Conferences

In the coming weeks, I'll be speaking at/attending the Annual Writers Institute in Madison; ASJA's 2011 Writers Conference in NYC; and the OWFI 2011 Conference in Oklahoma City. If you'll be attending a writers' conference this year, here are six simple "dos" and "don'ts" to keep in mind:

Do: Dress like a grown-up.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. "I’m a writer! It’s my words that matter, not how I look!" Not anymore. At a conference, you’re meeting with agents, editors, and others who can literally make—or break—your career. You don't have to break out a suit and tie, but business casual is a good bet. Publishing is a business, after all—you should appear to understand that fact.

Do: Prepare your pitch.
You’re spending time and money to attend this event. If you’re planning—or hoping—to make a connection with an agent or editor, you’d better think about what you’re going to say in advance. Practice what some agents call your “elevator pitch.” That’s your book or article pitch, summed up in a line or two that you could spit out in the time of a brief elevator ride. If you find yourself rambling past 20-30 seconds, work on it until it’s smooth, tight, and practiced.

Do: Speak up.
Chances are that the person you most want to connect with isn’t going to seek you out during the cocktail hour to ask about your writing background. That means you have to make the first move. Don’t be afraid to ask a question of a presenter during the Q-and-A period after a session or introduce yourself afterwards. (Just don’t become a stalker or editor hog as discussed below.)

Do: Network with other writers.
Sure, editors and agents may be on the top of your list, but don't forget to be friendly with other writers. I've made important connections and sold thousands of dollars worth of work thanks to other freelancers I've met at conferences. Swap contact info at the conference and follow up with people you'd like to stay in touch with through email or sites like LinkedIn and Twitter.

Don’t: Stalk your prey.
Editors and agents expect to meet writers at conferences. That's one of the reasons they're there. However, you shouldn't relentlessly pursue your target throughout the day until you can force him or her to listen to you. A brief into and polite inquiry about what the person is looking for is acceptable; following someone into the bathroom or interrupting his dinner is not.

Don’t Be a leech.
There are some at every conference; they're the writers who glom on to an agent or editor and refuse to let the person go, even while others are waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for their turn. Don’t monopolize someone’s time. It’s better to ask if you can follow up after the conference. Then do it.

There are hundreds of writers conferences throughout the U.S. (you can search Shaw Guides for topics, locations, dates, and agents/editors). Conferences can not only help you hone your skills, but can also help increase your chance of getting published and provide opportunities to make valuable contacts with editors, agents, and other freelancers.

I speak from experience: in 1997, my first year of fulltime freelancing, I attended Chicago Editors & Writers/One on One. It was the first time I'd met other freelancers, and meeting them--and seeing that they were making good livings as self-employed writers--gave me the confidence and inspiration that I could do so, too.