What You Don’t Know About Writing Conferences: Behind the Scenes

Earlier this month, several members of the Thinking Through Our Fingers crew contributed to the Tenth Annual Writing for Charity Conference, an event founded by author Shannon Hale. This conference is an amazing collaboration of over 100 Utah writers that come together to offer critiques, presentations, and panel discussions to raise money for books and libraries in underprivileged communities.

Have you considered helping out at a writing conference but don’t know what’s involved? Or how you could benefit from it? How enjoyable or stressful it might be? How much of a time commitment is required? Then you’re in luck — we’re here today to share our experiences and behind-the-scenes perspectives.

Volunteers (Elaine)
As writers, we often want to be involved and we’re eager to make connections. But. We’re introverts. We’re happy to talk to anybody who approaches us, but often too shy to do the approaching. We look forward to the day we’re asked to speak so it won’t feel like we’re just forcing ourselves and our stories on people. We feel like that’s the point when we’ll actually have something to contribute. We want to be involved, but we’re awkward about exactly what that means and how it should work.

If this sounds like you, may I suggest volunteering? Writing for Charity is unique in that even the keynote speaker is there as a volunteer, but we also have a crew of volunteers for which the only qualification is that you be dependable and happy to help. When I realized this, I wished I’d been serving as a volunteer for years, and I wished they’d only asked me! But here’s the thing about volunteering, which shouldn’t come as a huge shock: sometimes you have to volunteer to be a volunteer. Don’t wait to be asked! Just check the conference website and seek out those opportunities, or reach out to conference organizers. It’s a great way to make connections and be helpful at the same time, and it’s really a fun and unique conference experience.

Critiques (Rosalyn)
I was asked to head-up organizing the critiques several months before the conference and blithely said yes, thinking: how hard can it be to match people up? As it turns out, trickier than I expected! A couple of weeks before the conference, I got a list of who was interested in critiques: Writing for Charity offers five-page paid critiques and free one-page critiques. My first task was finding volunteers to do the critiquing, but that part turned out to be fairly easy, as most writers are generous people interested in giving back to the community that helped them.

It was a little trickier matching people up by age-group and genre, and making sure that I didn’t schedule any of the author volunteers at a time they had a panel. And then of course, whenever I thought I had things down, something changed: someone had a critique scheduled at the same time as their pitch session with an agent; someone was (unbeknownst to me) already critique partners with the author I’d scheduled them with, etc. Little changes often had a snowball effect, where I had to switch several people around to accommodate a change. Luckily, everyone was gracious about the changes!

The day of the conference I spent time at the beginning of every session making sure everyone knew where to go to meet their assigned critiques: sometimes this meant I was late to the session; sometimes it meant I missed the session entirely.

But really? I loved it. I met so many new people this way (people who recognized my name because I’d sent them so many emails in the weeks before the conference started . . . ) and like Elaine said, having something useful to do is a wonderful icebreaker, particularly for introverts. I also got to hang around the registration desk a lot, which no doubt made me look more important than I really am!

Organizational Tip: My advice to anyone volunteering in some sort of scheduling capacity–start earlier than you think you need to, and plan on it taking longer than you expect! Also, keep a sense of humor with you–it really helps when things don’t go entirely as expected. (For instance: the conference was held on a university campus, which had told us we’d have the use of four rooms for critiques, pitches, etc. What they didn’t tell us was that these rooms were study rooms available on a first come, first serve basis–which meant they were mostly occupied by students before we got there! So we used the lounges instead.)

Panels (Helen)
I was one of four members on a panel discussion on “Self-Publishing Well.” Armed with a serious case of the nerves, I was the first one to walk into the room, sit down in a chair, and face the audience. They looked back at me with interest and even some smiles, and my worries eased. Breakout sessions where attendees can sit in on their choice of panels are common at writing conferences; the people who come to your panel will be there because they (1) thought your topic sounded cool and (2) have similar interests to you, so just relax and have fun! Our panel went smoothly, we had great audience questions, and feedback from attendees was very positive. How much preparation was involved prior to the panel? As a participant (and not a moderator or organizer), I required very little advance preparation. I also had a lot of fun! 🙂

Panel Etiquette Tips:
Don’t dominate. This applies to both moderators and panelists. In our panel, our moderator posed a series of questions, and we each took a turn sharing our perspectives. Keep your answers brief. You’re not in a competition with the other panelists to be the one who can offer the most knowledge, and you can learn a lot by listening to what they have to say.

– Offer personal anecdotes and experiences. Don’t worry about delivering a prepared speech or being able to cite research or sources for information. Your audience will benefit most from hearing about your personal experience, and the shared experiences from your fellow panelists will provide a well-rounded array of possibilities for your audience.

– If you’re asked to be a moderator, prepare several broad questions. I’ve been on panels where we started off with brief introductions and then by asking questions to the audience. This works well if your audience has questions to start, and if panel duration is short, but sometimes audiences are initially quiet. As a moderator, you should come prepared with a few big-picture questions that can get the conversation rolling. Our moderator was excellent and had a little notebook from which she pulled a few starter questions (e.g., “Why did you choose to self-publish?” “What is the biggest lesson you learned from the first time you self-published?”).

Making Connections (Erin)

People are always asking how I know so many people at writing events. This is mostly because I’ve been going to conferences and workshops since my children were very tiny. But I’m also probably a bit too chatty and I love to meet new people. So, how do you do it? How do you jump right in and connect with new groups of writers?

*Offer to help! Find out who’s in charge and volunteer to help with the event. Or maybe you didn’t think to officially volunteer and you’re at a conference? Pay attention and look for opportunities to help. As soon as Elaine and I pulled into the parking lot we noticed a friend and author struggling to pack massive boxes of books into the building. Together we lugged those boxes in lickety split.

*Ask questions! Don’t you love to be asked what you write or what you’re working on? Isn’t it nice to have people show interest in you? Don’t wait around for someone to ask you questions though. And don’t sit there, awkwardly wishing someone you knew was nearby. You can be the one to start conversations! Whenever I’m in a line or sitting by someone in a class or at a table for lunch, I ask people near me what they write and what they’re working on. I ask where they’re from and how many kids they have and what book they’re reading and we chat and chat and chat and eventually it’s like we’re old friends. I love it!

Bonus Tip: Bring a selfie stick! They draw out the fun, goofy side of writers.

*Be inclusive! Be aware of those around you and whether or not they’re contributing to conversations or looking a bit lonely. There’s been times I’m chatting with someone and  notice someone nearby who looks as though they’d like to be part of the conversation, but they just don’t quite know how to do it. Or maybe they simply look a bit lost. I smile at them and ask them a question, too! Usually, I manage to draw them into the conversation, too. I love these words from Edwin Markham from the poem Outwitted:

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. 
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In!

*Connect long term! When you find people you well and truly connect with, find each other on social media so you can let the friendship continue to grow. I started going to writing events before Facebook. (Well. That makes me sound ancient.) I love how social media lets these new connections well and truly flourish across huge distances. I now have writing friends in Turkey, India, Canada, and England! I love that I can stay in touch with them through social media.

Have you ever attended a writing conference? Any secrets to share?

4 Deadly Sins of Presenting at Writing Conferences

I’m the Director of Instruction for a large (700+ people!!!) writing conference in Utah every spring. (It’s called Storymakers, and you should absolutely go, but hurry, because registration is almost full.) My job is to solicit pitches for classes, comb through hundreds of them, choose the fraction I think is best suited for our attendees, schedule 90+ classes, and recruit and coordinate all the faculty.


Actually, I do kind of love it. But after we threaten and cajole people into giving us feedback about the classes, I spend some time combing through the data to see what worked, what didn’t, and why. Although this post is what NOT to do, I’ll give you two freebies that are always crowd pleasers according to literally THOUSANDS of feedback forms:

  1. People love feeling like they have a specific tool/technique they can apply to their writing from the second they walk out of a class. 
  2. People love high energy and funny.

There’s your lagniappe. Now, to pay off on the click bait headline that brought you here: these are the most consistent complaints year after year.

Avoiding these pitfalls will land you in the firmly “Nailed It!” instead of “Failed It!” column:

1. People know when a presenter is winging it and they don’t like it. 

At our conference, someone in any given class thought they needed what that presenter was teaching more than what eight other teachers are offering at the same time. They get testy when they know the teacher threw his PowerPoint together an hour before in the breakroom. And trust me, they know. It’s like how kids can hear you unwrapping a candy bar even when you’re hiding in the closet with your bedroom door shut because dear heavens you just need a Snickers to get through it sometimes, you know? Anyway, it’s like that. They can totally sniff it out. All of the evaluations will come in independently of each other and all of them will still call the teacher out for this. It’s eerie.

2. People complain about being “pitched” or “marketed to.” 

There are times when it makes sense to discuss an element of craft in your own work but it’s a fine line before it veers into “Buy my book!” I think the line gets crossed when some unconscious part of a presenter’s demeanor is desperately hoping they’ll make a sale. The attendees just know, man. Sometimes if my own work is the easiest to use as an example, I’ll pull a section from something in progress and say, “You can’t even buy this yet, so this isn’t an ad. Now look at . . .” and work from there. It helps. They know I’m trying to make a point, not a sale. Trust me, if you’re engaging and confident, they go looking for your books and you don’t have to say a word.

3. Low energy is a bummer, man. 

Sometimes it’s just a lack of confidence that manifests as low energy, but when your audience is interpreting your discomfort that way, it tanks your evaluations. There are a couple of cases where I’ve seen presenters characterized as “condescending” or “standoffish” and because I know them personally, I know it’s just nerves. If this is a tendency you have, try to channel it into nervous energy. They’ll still know you’re nervous, but it gets them on your side. They’re waaaay more sympathetic. The comments becoming something more like, “She was nervous, but great energy.”

4. When your description in the course syllabus doesn’t match what you actually deliver, it gives the people the crankies. 

That turns into, “It was a good class, but it’s not really what I thought it was going to be about.” And then *Ding!* Off comes a point here and there. So creative class descriptions are a good way to get people to your class, but make sure they’re clear enough for people to know what you’re teaching about. And since presenters often develop their presentations long after they submit their pitch, double check that you’re teaching what you said you were going to teach. (That’s actually a rare occurrence. Mostly it’s just matter of getting your class description/blurb right.)

Ending on a DON’T is kind of a drag, so here’s one more DO: If you’re passionate about what you’re teaching, the audience comes with you. Every. Time. So DO be excited. If you’re sincerely invested in giving these aspiring writers something that will improve or even transform their writing, they’re going to be excited, and YOU are going to be invited back. Every. Time.


Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.