Writing Conference Proposals

I spent the weekend just before Thanksgiving in Atlanta, hanging out with a bunch of writers and educators at NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English). I had a wonderful time meeting new and old friends, talking books and writing–and barely managed to cram all my new book acquisitions into my suitcase.

As I talked with other writers there, a common theme started to emerge. A few of the writers were lucky enough to have been sent there by their publisher purely to promote their books. But far more often, those of us who were there because we first pitched a proposal for a class or a panel, and only after the proposal was accepted were the publishers willing to help the authors get to the conference. In other words, if you’re an author who’s interested in teaching at conferences, sometimes you have to put yourself out there first. (NB: This is not a guarantee that the publisher will then help you get to the conference–it’s important to submit knowing that you might be responsible for getting yourself there. Publishing budgets differ, and what one publisher does for one author won’t determine what another publisher–or even the same publisher–will do).

That said, here are a few tips I’ve learned for writing successful proposals. Earlier this year, Melanie Jacobson offered some great tips from the perspective of the committee choosing pitches, with some great examples. What I’m offering here focuses more on the genre of a proposal (something that, not incidentally, I’m currently teaching to freshmen students in a “Writing in the Sciences” course).

Proposals–whether conference pitches, book proposals, or grant proposals–tend to share a couple common rhetorical moves across fields.

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1. Establish a need.

Most conferences receive more proposals than they can reasonably accommodate (for example, NCTE accepts about 30% of applications). This means that the first thing you have to do in your proposal or pitch is convince the committee that your topic is timely and necessary. You may have the most insightful presentation in the world on how to describe the underwater movements of ctenophores, but unless you can convince the committee that this is something that would benefit your attendees, you’re going to be out of luck.

Do some research on the conference–does it have a theme? How does your proposed topic relate to the theme? Is there a common problem faced by writers that your pitch addresses?

For instance, the theme for NCTE was “Faces of advocacy.” As my friends and I discussed the kinds of panels we wanted to propose, we tried to consider problems that related to advocacy in writing, particularly young adult fiction, which is what we write. Since many of the conference attendees are teachers, we tried to consider problems facing teachers as well.

Here’s what we came up with:

A growing interest in advocacy work on behalf of minority voices has spurred teachers to ask how they can better craft inclusive environments for their adolescent students. One method for encouraging advocacy and inclusivity is introducing texts that model diverse voices and perspectives. For instance, in “Inclusive Classrooms for LGBTQ students,” Autumn Dodge and Paul Crutcher argue that one of the best ways to create inclusive classrooms is to incorporate LGBTQ texts into the classroom (Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 59.1, Jul. 2015).

There’s a long history of advocacy in fiction: from nineteenth-century writers like George Elliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to twenty-first century novelists like Ta-Nehisi Coates. But for adolescent readers, one of the most accessible forms of advocacy may be in young adult novels. As Clare Bradford et. al argue, “adolescent fiction is pivotally preoccupied with the formation of subjectivity—that is, the development of notions of selfhood” (Bradford, Clare, Kerry Mallan, John Stephens, and Robyn McCallum. New World Orders in Contemporary Children’s Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.) These notions of selfhood are particularly critical for under-represented characters, whose subjectivity is often shaped in restrictive and harmful ways by dominant ideologies around them.

Teachers looking for novels initiate discussions of advocacy often turn to contemporary fiction, which is more “realistic” and often issues-driven. But some students are resistant to this kind of direct approach, suspecting it to be agenda-driven.

Notice a clear problem: teachers want to advocate for minority voices in their classroom by reading those texts, but some students might resist stories that they feel are agenda-driven.

2. Fill that Need

Once you’ve explained why the need exists for your topic, you have to make it clear how your proposal answers that need.

For instance, in the NCTE proposal, we went on to say that YA genre fiction (particularly speculative fiction, like sci-fi and fantasy) provides a useful alternative, often presenting compelling depictions of minority voices, but at a distance in time or space that allows students a “safe space” to explore advocacy issues without feeling singled out. Then we explained how our panel would illustrate the benefits of using genre fiction in the classroom.

This second part of the proposal needs to be specific–the conference committee needs to know that you’ve got a clear plan for addressing the problem or question you identify.

For example, here’s another proposal that was recently accepted for the LDStorymakers conference in the spring:

Editors and agents often report that, even above a killer concept, style and voice are what really capture their attention. But style and voice can be such nebulous concepts—how can you deepen a writing style when you’re not really sure what yours is? In this class, I argue that one way to increase style (and voice) in a manuscript is to pay more attention to classical rhetorical devices. I will introduce writers to 15-20 common rhetorical figures and, using literary and rhetorical examples, illustrate how the figure can be used to highlight emotional moments in the story. For instance, a common way to build to an emotional punchline is to use a mix of parallelism, tricolon, and climax, where three parallel sentences (or phrases) build to an increasingly emotional finish. Following the introduction to the devices, we will practice incorporating these devices in our own writing.

Notice that in addition to establishing a problem, the proposal offers a clear plan to address the problem (using rhetorical devices as a way to add style).

I can’t say that these two moves are fool-proof–I’ve certainly had my share of rejections using them. But I find that the odds of getting a proposal accepted go up considerably if I make sure it’s clear why the topic is necessary or useful, and how I plan to address the problem I raise.

What tips have you found useful in crafting conference proposals?

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Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming March 2017 from Knopf/Random House. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.

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