You often hear young writers babbling excitedly about the fun they had at such-and-such conference, and older writers moaning about the expenses incurred and time lost at similar conferences over the years. Who to believe? What do conferences really have to offer, and when are they not worth the risk? Here are the main benefits and concerns attending a writing conference presents:
Some writers are serious networkers, and if you are one of them, you can definitely expect to make some worthwhile connections at a conference, whether those come in handy now or much further down the road. The nice thing about writing conferences is that writing is an underdog industry, so no one is really “too high up” to attend. You’ll meet folks from every area of the industry—writers, editors, publishers, researchers, writing app inventors, funders of obscure e-zines—and all of them will be happy to exchange contact information and actually follow through with you. Keep in mind you’re forging connections based on where people will be in the future, not on who’s established now. These conferences are about people on the same level helping each other get further.
For those who don’t identify as “networkers,” rest assured, you will still make those worthwhile connections. In fact, you may find that while you’re beating yourself up for not being the guy who brought business cards and shook everyone’s hand, you’ll end up meeting an important publishing contact, a future business partner, or a lifelong writing friend just by showing up at the end-of-conference mixer. Remember that the casual events and down times can be just as important as the formal sessions.
Often, attendees are so focused on making connections that they skip the workshops and lectures, or pay little attention during them. But many find that this can be the most rewarding aspect of a conference. A talk with a dull title may end up providing you with absolute gems of advice; the impromptu Q&A at the end of a panel presentation can lead to a spirited and rewarding discussion about the ins and outs of publishing, or about a topic that gets the juices for your next novel flowing. Since conferences are so brief, cram your schedule full and see how much you can take in before you find yourself desperate for a nap (or a drink).
Ask almost anyone after they attend their first writing conference and they’ll tell you that: they may be disappointed with how few connections they made, how few panels they made it to, how few talks were worthwhile, and the water pressure in their hotel room, but on the whole, they feel invigorated, hopeful, and reassured. Being surrounded by so many others who are so invested in the field you love can be overwhelming, but it also fosters a sense of well being and interconnectedness. It reminds you that you’re on the right path, and excites you to continue down it.
Unfortunately, money is often the biggest consideration. AWP, the largest writing conference in the nation, is notoriously expensive: once you’ve paid the fee, purchased plane tickets, reserved a hotel room, arranged for shuttles, and paid the bar tab, you can easily find yourself out a grand. But smaller conferences are often much less expensive in total, and if you try to plan ahead (book tickets when they’re cheap, arrange to stay with friends or share an airbnb, subsist on Lunchables, or only attend local conferences, if you’re lucky enough to live in a city that has its fair share of them), they can be very affordable. Think about your goals for the conference, your possible priceless outcomes (a serious connection or an idea for your next story), and your projected costs, and weigh them carefully. Then just go.