Preparing for a Writers Conference

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Kent

Registration for a significant fiction writers conference opened this week, and quite a few of my clients have been emailing me asking for advice. I bet many of you have similar conference concerns. So today I have some pre-conference advice for you. How do you prepare?

1) When you select whom you’ll request appointments with, research beyond just reading an agent or editor’s brief description on the conference website. Check out websites, tweets, and blogs for those agents and editors. You’ll develop a better idea of who they are, which can help you to narrow down your top choices. Also, make sure that all of the agents and editors you request to meet are actually looking for what you’re writing. If you do have an agent, you should check in with him or her before finalizing your choices because sometimes agents have had discussions about your book with the editors that you aren’t aware of or know, because of recent conversations, what editors are looking for.

2) Don’t forget to pack a few pens and a pad of paper. You’ll need these for your appointments. Don’t just bring one pen. They’re too easy to lose! During appointments, I’m often asked by the author I’m meeting with if he or she can borrow my pen to write down what I’m saying. That isn’t usually a problem, but it is a little unprofessional.

3) Bring a shoulder bag so you can easily carry your conference materials. Ladies, I suggest having a large conference tote so you only have one bag to carry. Only carry what you need so you don’t hurt your body.

4) Print out a few extra copies of your one-sheet and proposal just in case an editor or agent would like to take a copy. Most editors and agents will request that you send the materials to them after the conference, but I have heard of some who take the proposals right away. (No need to print and carry a copy of your complete manuscript!)

5) Purchase a name tag lanyard to bring to the conference. These are reusable and really help to keep your dressy conference clothes nice.

6) If it’s possible, pick your conference workshops ahead of time so you can start to mentally prepare, but remain flexible in case during faculty introductions you feel that you’ve made a wrong decision. Most conferences will let you change your workshops on the first day.

7) Last suggestion: Don’t pack the night before the conference. I fail at this all the time, but it’s so important. Conferences are exhausting, and if you’re up late packing, you aren’t getting the essential rest you need to prepare for the conference. Plus, if you pack the night before, there’s no opportunity to run to the store for last-minute necessities.

I hope these tips are helpful!

For those of you who have been to a conference before, is there anything else you would like to add to this list?

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58 Responses

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  1. Great tips, Rachel! I wouldn’t have thought of some of it. I’ve been to one conference, but it was small and local, so there wasn’t as much prep as there will be when I head to Dallas this fall for ACFW! 🙂

  2. Jill Kemerer says:

    Love this advice! I love the hustle bustle of meeting new people, but my body doesn’t always love me back. So I prepare by making the decision to NOT cram every workshop in. By building rest times into the conference, I’m able to enjoy it more. 🙂

    • Kate says:

      Good idea Jill. I, too, love meeting new people, but find I need moments of down time to rejuvenate and meditate. As “they” say…”Know thyself!”

    • Donna Brennan says:

      Jill, you’re so right about giving yourself time to rest. The first few conferences I went to I felt like I “had to” attend everything, just because I was there and it was offered. But I get more out of a multi-day conference if I allow myself a break here or there to reflect on what I’ve learned so far or just to catch my breath.

  3. Kate says:


    Thanks for your insightful recommendations.

    #2 Extra pens…I “loaned” several, happy to do so, but grateful I had one or two left for myself. 🙂

    #3 One bag….I mentioned wanting to buy a rolling briefcase for an upcoming conference to my lovely “fashionista” daughter. Horrified, she hustled to find an “appropriate” shoulder bag. (I think the rolling bag was cheaper though!)

    #7 Packing….I’m too old now to wait until the night before to pack. I love lists anyway, so about a week before a trip/event I begin making notes. The little checklist has saved me several times.

    Heading to a conference not knowing anyone is a bit bewildering. Two of my writer friends, not attending the conference, asked me to convey their “greetings” to several editors and other writer friends. The warm welcome I received made me want to dance.

    No wonder the Apostle Paul continually said, “Give my greetings to….” It is wonderful to be expected and received with joy.

    I hope, one day, to send “greetings” guaranteeing a happy experience for a new writer’s first conference.

  4. Wonderful advice, Rachel!

    I would only add, don’t forget to smile! 🙂

  5. Angie Dicken says:

    When I went to ACFW last year, I made a list of those I would like to meet…especially from my agent/editor list in case I didn’t get an appt, and I made notes by names so that I didn’t get confused as to what they represent (sometimes nerves leave you jumbled!). I prioritized who I would sit at lunch with too. (This changed when I got there and heard the buzz of what an agent or editor that wasn’t on my radar). I also added to the list authors and writing friends so I could be sure to connect with people I might only see face to face, once a year. So excited for this year’s conference!! So many new friends that I have yet to meet in person!

  6. Amanda Dykes says:

    Great tips! To aid in #3 (only carry what you need), I found binders to be invaluable at my first conference last month. I had 3 binders:

    -a conference binder, w/ schedule, notetakers, and all of the general conference paperwork,

    -a workshop binder, with all of the materials for my critique/mentoring group, and

    -a proposal binder, containing my full proposal to show any agents/editors who were interested in seeing materials beyond what the limited conference submission proposal allowed, and one-sheets.

    This way I could ditch a binder or two in my room as needed to lighten the load for whatever session/event I was headed to.

    …and the conference was a blast!

  7. What great tips, Rachel. I never considered the lanyard. I wonder how much more expensive it would be for conferences to buy them. I am on the planning committee of a small local conference. We usually use the name badges, but I like the lanyard idea better.

    One thing I did to prepare for my agent meetings is check out from the library a few books the agent represented. I felt like I had a better handle on what she was looking for because of it.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    • Rachel Kent says:

      I don’t think the lanyards are that expensive. ACFW does have those hanging name tags with pockets so they’re already ahead of the game. I wonder if a company like Oriental Trading would have some that could be bought in bulk?

  8. ACFW had awesome lanyards last year that came with a pouch to hold a pen and business cards. Brilliant! I usually tuck my business cards behind my nametag in the pin-type badges, so I don’t have to go searching in my bag when someone asks for one.

    And I’m with Amanda on binders, though I just carry one large one. I pick them up at Goodwill for $0.99 each–the type people get for annual reports. That way I can slide my one sheets or conference schedule in the sleeve on the cover. After the conference, I just pop it onto my shelf and I always have my workshop notes handy.

  9. Donna says:

    These are great reminder tips, Rachel. Filing away in time for September… 🙂

  10. Great tips! Business cards. I met so many great people! It was nice once I got home to go over them and add my new friends to my contact list. Editors seemed to want them as well. 😉

    I’m looking forward to the ACFW conference!

  11. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I’m with Jess on the business cards — lots and lots of business cards.
    And I also like to have my pitch sheet and a sample chapter (just in case) in a folder with a business card. Some folders even have a spot just for your business card. I like to have one folder ready for each appointment. No pulling papers from different places. I walk into the appointment ready to talk , with everything in one place.

  12. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m with Jill–build in rest periods. Miss a workshop, take a break, something to give yourself a little recharge. It’s so tempting to attend every moment of everything just in case it’s the moment you have some sort of breakthrough. Just don’t let it be the moment you have a breakdown!

  13. I have two suggestions. First, check out the conference location and choose the right kind of shoes for the landscape. You would NOT want to wear high heels at Mount Hermon. When you arrive and get your name tag, put some business cards in the plastic holder behind your name. That makes it easy to reach one to give someone without needing to open and find them in your bag.

  14. Oh, here’s another idea. Instead of carrying binders with me I pull out everything I might need each day and put it in a folder, then leave the binder in my room. Folders don’t weigh nearly as much.

  15. Donna Brennan says:

    I like your list of tips Rachel. Very helpful.

    I was at a conference recently where lots of folks brought laptops (or smaller devices) for taking notes. But there weren’t a lot of outlets and some folks experience dead batteries. So be sure to bring “old fashioned” paper or notebooks as a back-up.

    I usually bring water bottles. Some conferences I’ve been to have water pitchers and glasses in every room, others do not.

    And I like to bring a light jacket or sweater, even in the summer, because you never know what the air conditioning will be like.

    Also, for that agent/editor appointment, I suggest bringing a bullet list of things you want to be sure to mention about your book. Hopefully you won’t need to refer to this list, but it’s easy to get nervous and forget what you want to say. I usually bring the first few chapters as well as a one-sheet of my book. Some folks like to look that over as we talk. (I learned to bring extra copies of those chapters, because sometimes the agent or editor kept them.)

  16. Jeanne says:

    These are all great ideas. 🙂 I’m taking notes. 🙂 As I read through your list, Rachel, the one I actually have never thought of (and I’ve done some traveling) was to pack earlier than the night before. 🙂 Definitely planning that in before ACFW. Thanks for sharing all of this today!

  17. Great list, Rachel! I’m enjoying all the comments and suggestions and will keep this blog post on file for the day I’m able to go to a conference. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  18. Wow, this is excellent timing, indeed! I’m working on getting my stuff ready for my first conference and I’d rather be over-prepared than under prepared. Thank you so much for this information. You’ve helped tremendously!

  19. Peter DeHaan says:

    I never pack the night before — the day I leave works just fine!

  20. Dale Rogers says:

    In addition to taking lots & lots of notes, I
    like to record some of the speakers so I won’t
    miss anything! (It’s good to ask their permission
    to record, of course.)

  21. Jenny Leo says:

    If you’re a naturally introverted person, as I am, it’s easy to feel intimidated by a large conference, especially when there are lots of “regulars” who all seem to know each other. You fear that you blend into the wallpaper and, at the same time, wish you could do exactly that. A few tricks I’ve found helpful:

    *Mentally prepare yourself to be “extrovert-for-a-day” and push past your comfort zone to connect with people. You don’t have to dance on the table (in fact, we’d rather you didn’t), but make-believe for a while that you’re the kind of person who just LOVES to strike up conversations. Be on the lookout for others who might also be feeling awkward, maybe standing alone or showing an overly zealous interest in the appetizers. Walk up, smile, say hello, and watch the relief flood over their faces. Believe it or not, this gets easier as the conference goes on. I’ve been doing this for years and have not been bitten even once. 🙂

    *Set a goal. Vow to speak to three new people during lunch.

    *Polish your journalistic skills and draw out other people’s stories. Many people tell fascinating stories once you get them going, and then the focus on them, not you.

    *Look for opportunities to be of assistance. Help people find the right classroom, point out an empty seat, offer them a mint or an aspirin or a tourniquet or whatever the situation may call for. Focus on others and soon you’ll forget your own awkwardness.

    *When you’re an introvert, acting extroverted can be draining, so give yourself breaks, from a quiet stroll through the bookstore to a nap in your room. Call home to hear a familiar voice and feel grounded.

    *Remember that you’re NOT alone–Jesus is standing right there next to you. And he’s very eager for BOTH of you to go up and greet that woman who’s nervously downing her third glass of ginger ale.

    Hope to see you in Dallas. I’ll be the one by the snack table.

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      Loved this comment, Jenny. I related with every single aspect of it and found them all to be true at my first conference, too. 🙂

    • Rachel Kent says:

      Wonderful list! Thanks! So many writers, editors, and agents are introverts.

      I wont be at the ACFW conference this year, but I hope to go again in 2013.

    • Wow Jenny – GREAT advice. I’m heading to a local writing conference in a couple of weeks and won’t know a soul there. 🙂 If I focus on easing a fellow introvert’s discomfort, I’ll forget all about mine.

  22. Ann Bracken says:

    I suggest bringing healthy snacks. It needs to be something small that will carry you through the classes. So often candy is strewn around the tables, but a handful of nuts or raisins will last longer without the sugar crash. You don’t want to be drowsy!

  23. As important as all those professional tips are, I think that whole “don’t pack the night before” may just be the most important. It makes such a difference when I get to bed on time before a conference . . . and if I don’t! I wouldn’t have thought to give that tip, but it’s powerful!

  24. Don’t be afraid to talk to people!
    Be friendly
    Be Open
    I agree with Jenny Leo, set a goal to talk to someone new every day. Sometimes choosing to sit at a table with people you don’t know ends up being the best experience.
    I met one of my all time favorite authors in an elevator and ended up having a wonderful conversation.

  25. Nikole Hahn says:

    Make sure you stay relaxed, or you may end up with a migraine. LOL.

  26. Nikole Hahn says:

    And on that note, enjoy yourself at a conference. It’s a lot of fun and you meet great people.

  27. Steve Myers says:

    After one year this month with the ACFW and all the preparations on my list this one blog has answered just about all of my questions. Thank you for such an informative and godly peace about attending a conference. Thanks also to all who posted. Its funny, in media on the air I was an extrovert but when its just me as a writer I am an introvert. The thought of a conference initially reminded me of a job fair several years ago where I was one of 10,000 attendees for less than 2,000 jobs. In that vein I was not looking forward to being alone in a crowd of people. But many have suggested otherwise and provided great notes of encouragement “How” to attend. Looking at potential agents today and representative firms I am so blessed to have read Books and Such on referral of two authors represented with the firm. Maybe I can navigate this process after all. Thanks again for some educational content.