Some Thoughts on Choosing the Right Writers Conferences

February 6, 2018 § 7 Comments


hippocamp17 tee shirt - SIZEDBy Lisa Romeo

During several periods in my writing life I attended no conferences, and other times I could get to just a few, dictated by a confluence of budget, geography, travel logistics, day-job demands, family obligations. When I could attend, I had to be picky.

I came to understand that a conference will not make me a better writer or a more published writer by itself. But the right conference can help to make me into a writer who better knows how to identify, create, pursue, participate in, and evaluate the writing life, career, projects, and submission/publication plan that will work best for me, and make me happy.

So, I thought I’d offer this list, and hope it has some value for others. All these things lined up for me last year when I attended HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers, and I hope my list might be helpful to others attempting to choose the right conference:

What makes a writing conference right:

It directly, seriously, fully, and openly addresses, embraces, and celebrates the genre or category of writing most important to you. If you can find it, specialization rocks! One big reason I love Hippocamp is that it’s focused on CNF writing. Yes, I learn a lot at conferences that aren’t so specialized, but a hyper-focused event means you are with your tribe. Everything that happens, each break-out session, panel, reading, or other element is for folks who write what you write.

Enough of what’s on offer is for writers at your skill and/or experience level. Yes, it’s good when some sessions push you to extend your reach; that’s good for learning what to aspire to. But do you want to spend all day, or most of many days, feeling either completely overwhelmed because you have no idea what the speakers are talking about, or bored and antsy because you already know and have mastered what’s being covered.

The mix, intent, and focus of material jives with what you want and need now. Only craft-related sessions? Hands-on (“generative”) sessions? Lecture style only? Workshops (with feedback)? Presentations with opportunities for Q-and-A? Marketing/submission/querying skills?

The size fits. I love a mid-sized conference best so I can make personal connections. Small to mid-sized events usually also foster casual, follow-up interactions with speakers and presenters at meals, breaks, and just wandering about the venue—another thing I like. (I do occasionally like a huge conference, but for very different reasons.)

The conference organizers respect every attendee, and don’t play favorites. This is one of those intangibles that, for me, can make or break a conference experience. At Hippocamp for example, I’ve heard attendees describe the organizers in ways you might reserve for your favorite teacher, coach, or BFF: they listen, help, and care. Every person on the grounds is IN THE CLUB. (I’ve attended way too many conferences where some writers are made to feel inadequate and lesser-than because they don’t “have a book,” are not sufficiently well-connected, and find themselves feeling left out in an us-and-them kind of way.) At Hippocamp, the club is everyone in the room. Look for that.

The fees make sense. Who wants to be someplace where you feel the conference is mostly interested in your wallet? I happen to like conference fees that also include meals, coffee, snacks and parking; offer hotel room discounts; and small goodies that make me feel welcome. If I can get that, and it also lines up with reasonable travel costs, I’m in. (Don’t go broke attending conferences.)

Everything’s included, but there’s also an a-la-carte add-on menu. One year at Hippocamp, I paid for agent pitch sessions, other years not. Twice I took a pre-conference workshop. Choices like that can add value to your time away from home, and (for someone like me who likes to cram every hour with something useful), make the conference a more robust writerly experience.

There’s a little bit of fun built right in. Door prizes? A casual open mic? Fun snacks? Optional, casual meal meet-ups for when it seems everyone else has made dining plans? We’re writers, not robots, and only some find it easy to organize themselves socially.

The conference encourages, and facilitates, continued learning beyond the time limit of each program element. I like to leave a session with something that I’ll consult later (besides my own notes) — handouts, recommended links, the speaker’s email address or resource website, maybe something I’ve been urged to generate during the session. Even better if (as is the case with Hippocamp), I can find some speakers’ entire slide presentations on the conference website later.

There’s a balance between too much and just enough. One day? Four days? Five break-out sessions running concurrently? Or 25 to choose from simultaneously? A crammed daily schedule or one with breaks and free (writing?) time built in? Each is likable for different reasons, by different writers. What do you like at a conference?

The organizers want your feedback. Whether it’s a matter of listening sincerely to an in-person complaint or suggestion during the conference, or providing and urging attendees to fill out post-event surveys, I like it when speaking up about what didn’t go quite right, what was stellar, and what might be a good future addition (or deletion), feels welcomed.

I’m sure I’ve left something out. What do you love about, and look for in the conferences you attend?

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A slightly altered version of this post ran previously on Lisa Romeo Writes. Reprinted with Lisa’s kind permission.

You can get more information on the next HippoCamp Conference here.
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Lisa Romeo is the author Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss(forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program, serves as CNF editor of Compose Journal, and nonfiction craft essays editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her work is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, and has appeared in Brevity, Under the Sun, New York Times, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, O The Oprah Magazine, and many other places. At HippoCamp 2018, she will be leading a workshop on “Transforming Essays Into a Narrative Memoir Manuscript.”

§ 7 Responses to Some Thoughts on Choosing the Right Writers Conferences

  • Raney Simmon says:

    Good post for those who are looking to go to writer conferences in the future. I might have to start looking into those again.

  • Thank you. You have offered a well-organized review of pretty much every consideration and way more than I could have listed.

  • Margaret says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I read a previous round-up of the HippoCamp Conference and decided that I would love to attend one day even though I live in Australia and it seems like a bit of a pipe dream. It’s good to have goals but it would help if I actually wrote something in the meantime! Oh the writers lament…

  • Bryce Warden says:

    I’m going to the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop in April and I can’t wait. I went to the Writer’s Digest Conference last summer. It was wonderful to hear the speakers and some sessions were good but it was too big for this introvert.

  • […] me for advice on creative nonfiction conferences. And just this week, the Brevity blog presented this counsel from Lisa Romeo, with a focus on […]

  • herheadache says:

    I would prefer smaller to mid sized, but curious about the size for accessibility purposes. Wondering if anyone knows about that at all, if I ever did decide to make a plan to attend this one? I know little about writing conferences and their disability services options for someone without sight.

    This one, Hippocampus, maybe in 2019.

    • Lisa Romeo says:

      @herheadache — I believe for the 2017 Hippocamp, attendance was around 200 – 250(?). Though I don’t want to speak for them, I’m sure the organizers will be happy to let you know what size they anticipate for 2018, and help w/specific needs.

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