I have attended a lot of writing conferences since I arrived at Poynter in 1979. I have organized some, delivered keynote speeches and hands-on workshops, and I have sat in the audience as a learner, at times enthralled by the speaker, at other times amazed that so many people seem so engaged by a writer whose grasp of the writing process seems so obvious.
I once heard someone say this about a favorite food: “Pizza is like sex. Even when it’s bad it’s good.” I am ready to add the writing conference to the list. Even when it’s bad it’s good. And when it’s good, it’s great. And when it’s great it can change your career – and your life.
One of my favorite writing conferences, the one at Boston University led by Mark Kramer, is coming up. Although I won’t be part of this party this year, I will there in spirit. (Poynter is a longtime friend of the program.) For those who will be headed to Boston (or later in the year to Mayborn in Texas or to Berkeley in California), I have some advice on how to get the most out of a writing conference:
- Be prepared. Keep a journal of your experiences at the conference and start writing in it before you get there. Check out the program. Then write a mission statement for yourself: “I want to learn how to write about technical policies with greater clarity.” Or “I’m ready to write my first book, but need some guidance.” Or “I want to learn what it takes to write a serial narrative.” Or, “Is there a way to be a good writer on Twitter?” Now print out the program and mark it up to create a map of your learning.
- Don’t be seduced by fame. You will find marquee names on every program. They are there because of their public profile and because they attract paying customers. Poynter does it too. If you can get a Tom Brokaw or a Tom Wolfe at the lectern (just to mention the Toms), that’s a cool thing. But if you get a Tom French, you may be better off. That’s because a Tom French or a Jacqui Banaszynski or a Jan Winburn has the ability to communicate the elements of craft in a compelling way.
- Seek inspiration. Some writers go to conference to have their batteries re-charged, and it works. To hear an Anne Hull from the Washington Post describe how she slept on the floor of an Army hospital to immerse herself in the inadequate care of wounded war veterans is to be reminded that the writing craft is most powerful when wed to a noble purpose.
- Fill your toolbox. So when you’re fired up by an inspirational speaker, it’s time to roll up your sleeves to do the real work of the conference. Your job is to fill your journal with a hundred tips, tools, strategies you can bring home and begin to apply to your own work. From me, for example, you can learn emphatic word order, the differences between reports and stories, how to control the pace of information, how to break big projects into manageable parts. Take notes, collect handouts – even from sessions you can’t attend – get copies of PowerPoint presentations.
- Join the club. Becoming a good writer is like joining a club. Attending a writing conference persuades you that you are a worthy member of a community of writers. Do whatever you can to enhance the social experience: go with friends, check out the parties, and discuss the workshops before and after the formal sessions. And think of your next story or your next job. Exchange business cards, develop professional networks, discover new publications or platforms that may enhance your work.
- Be alert in the hallways. Almost everyone who speaks at a conference is doing so for free. These writers are generous with their time, talent, and treasure. They sometimes pay their own expenses. They love the attention to their work, of course, but they also embrace the idea that they have a duty to share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of aspiring writers. Don’t be afraid to approach a speaker in the hallway. I remember seeing the late great Richard Ben Cramer sitting on a rug looking over the story written by a young writer he had just met. He’d do it for hours. I saw Norman Mailer sitting alone at a table. I approached him politely, asked him a question about one of his essays, and got a warm response.
- Write while you’re there. You are at a writing conference, remember, not a listening conference. I like to write in my journal in short bursts: what I just heard, what I disagree with, what I plan to read, a story idea that just occurred to me. Some will use Twitter to capture ideas and share them on the spot.
- Check out the books. If a speaker has written a book, check it out. Booksellers at writing conferences offer an interesting variety of books for sale, not just those written by the speakers. They will fall into two categories: works of nonfiction (or fiction) that can be read and used as mentor texts by aspiring writers; and books on the craft itself, written by authors such as Constance Hale, Ben Yagoda, Jack Hart, Anne Lamott, and yours truly.
- Share the wealth when you get back home. It is a common notion that one way to truly learn something is to teach it. If you are being sent to a writing conference by your company, there is probably some expectation that you will return to the shop and share what you’ve learned. Here is where your journal will come in handy. You can mine it for a list of tips and bits of wisdom. You can share these notes at a formal presentation, a casual brown-bag lunch, or at a coffee shop with a friend.
Learn and enjoy.