A couple of weekends ago, Wendy Lawton, Cynthia Ruchti, and I served on the faculty of the Northwestern Christian Writers Conference, which was conducted virtually. Being on the faculty of a writers conference was nothing new, but a virtual conference was a first for Wendy and me. Cynthia had been involved with the Speak Up virtual conference a few weeks before.
What was the same in a virtual writers conference?
Workshops were pre-recorded and were viewable at the time they would have occurred at the planned in-person conference. But they also could be viewed whenever convenient for the conferee.
Panels occurred as scheduled, with questions posed real-time in the Chat section of the platform. A moderator chose from those questions.
1:1 appointments unfolded much as they would in person, with faculty and conferees gathered in “the lobby” (everyone muted their audio, and you could turn off your camera, if you wanted) until the breakout rooms became available. Each person then clicked on his or her breakout room invitation at the designated time and found him/herself on camera with only the individual they were scheduled to meet.
What was different in a virtual writers conference?
The networking dynamics of an in-person conference are what is lacking most in a virtual conference. No shared meals, breaks, or social gatherings that could translate into serendipitous encounters. It makes the conference more antiseptic.
Northwestern staff did set up networking times in which people who wrote in a particular genre or category could meet online. Time also was set aside for conferees from different parts of the country to meet each other. That was a nice touch.
What were the pluses?
Being able to view portions of the conference when convenient enables each conferee to take in information at his/her own pace. (The recordings are available for a set amount of time after the conference.) Rather than feeling like you’re drinking from a fire hydrant, as is typical for conferences, you can absorb input at a slower pace.
For the 1:1 appointments, the faculty were able to request what they wanted to see before the meeting. In-person conferences generally create “cold” meetings, in which the faculty member has no idea what the conferee will present. A portion of the in-person session will be spent with the faculty reading what the person hands him/her or listening to the person pitch a project.
Faculty pre-appointment prep
But for this virtual writers conference, I requested one-sheets from the conferees who signed up to meet with me. Before the conference began, I read all the sheets, wrote down my first impressions, and listed questions I wanted to ask. This meant the time for the meeting was spent providing more feedback than I could have given at the in-person conference.
Some faculty asked for sample writing, which would require much more prep pre-appointment for the faculty, but it also enabled the faculty member to sample the person’s writing voice. But without a one-sheet, the faculty didn’t have a context for the writing sample.
As I mentioned earlier, the unexpected opportunities to connect with are lacking. So you won’t just happen to run into a conferee who lives 30 minutes from you, see writer buddies you met at previous conferences, or have a get-to-know-you conversation with an agent during a social event.
I found the virtual panel I was on lacked the conversational dynamic that would have occurred in-person. Since conferees weren’t posing their own questions, a panelist couldn’t ask clarifying questions such as, “Are you asking about fiction or nonfiction?” “Are you referring to self-publishing or traditional publishing?”
Also, the panelists didn’t tend to converse with one another. Ordinarily, a question sparks a conversation among the panelists. “To add to what Andy said…” “Another way to look at the question is…”
Instead, one panelist would answer the question, and generally no one expanded or offered another view. We would move on to the next question instead.
While that might seem minor, I felt our answers weren’t as fulsome as they would have been in-person. Maybe that was the dynamic of our particular panel, but I noted it as a marked difference.
So, is a virtual writers conference good–or bad?
Well, considering the alternative is no conferences…
Actually, a virtual writers conference is the perfect venue for some people to participate who couldn’t otherwise. Northwestern had a conferee from Australia and another from Germany.
If you are:
- have an infant
- can’t take time off from work
- can’t afford the travel and registration expense of an in-person conference,
then this is a great opportunity. Since almost all conferences this year and at least through the beginning of next year will be virtual, consider dipping into the water. The water’s fine.
Why might a virtual writers conference be worth your considering? If you’ve attended one, did you feel you got your money’s worth?
What are the pluses and minuses of a virtual writers conference? Click to tweet.
Want a preview of what a virtual writers conference is like? Read this new blog post. Click to tweet.