This year I’m heading to my first writers conference. I’m gathering tips and advice from people who have been to writers conferences before. So I asked one of my good friends Beth Skwarecki about her most recent writers conference. She’s also really analytical and never takes things at face value, which makes her a great science writer. We met last year when she agreed without ever having met me, to be my writing mentor for National Novel Writing Month. Since our first meetings, which were quiet and focused on writing, we’ve had some interesting shared adventures like hiking with our kids and spotting an owl as well as visiting gun and archery ranges. Yep, we’re exciting people.
Beth recently attended a science writers conference called…ScienceWriters hosted by the National Association of Science Writers. Pretty much it was science writers heaven to judge by her enthusiastic – almost giddy – tweets and emails!
— Beth Skwarecki (@BethSkw) November 5, 2013
Writers Conference Tips
Before Beth jetted off to London for SpotOn, another science conference, I asked her to share with me some advice for a great writers conference experience.
I suspect ScienceWriters is a different beast than other writing conferences. Not sure how much of this applies elsewhere. That said, I jotted down a few thoughts.
To know about writing conferences like ScienceWriters:
Editors want to meet writers. Writers want to hear cool stuff from PIOs. Freelancers want to compare notes with other freelancers. Introduce yourself to anyone and everyone; you won’t regret it.
Don’t skip the parties. Your conversation starters are:
So where are you based?
Are you a freelancer / who do you work for?
What sessions have you gone to? How was that one? Which ones are you doing tomorrow?
Have you been to these conferences before?
We’ve emailed / I follow you on twitter / etc / and I just wanted to say hi in person.
If you’re just starting out as a freelancer and don’t have tons of clips you’re proud of, and somebody asks you who you write for? DO NOT PANIC. It’s OK to say you’re new. Mention a thing or two you’ve done. Or just evade the question and tell them about the latest topic you wrote about, or something you’re interested in. They’re not fact-checking your resume, they just want to start a conversation.
When there are food tables, skip the first one you see. The ones at the back of the room have shorter lines.
There will be times you have to choose between sessions. Don’t sweat it too much; just ask other attendees later about how that session was. Sometimes I’ll skip a session if I know it’s likely to be blogged or videotaped, and instead choose something where the in-the-moment experience will be the best.
You don’t HAVE to do anything. If you want to skip a session to write, go ahead. If you’re partied out, feel free to hole up in your hotel room. Just not all the time.
NASW has lots of field trips and opportunities to meet researchers. Even if what they’re doing seems boring, put on your interviewer hat and start asking questions. Imagine an editor has told you “This person does super cool stuff, but you’ll have to dig to find out what it is.” Ask dumb questions, smart questions, anything that comes to mind. Stumped? Try “What is the worst part of your job?” and “What’s the most exciting thing in your field?”. Those two questions, if propelled with just a little bit of “so tell me more about that,” can cover anywhere from minutes to hours.
We did a “Power Pitch” session which was like speed dating with editors. It was AWESOME. Here’s my approach, which seemed to work well for me.
Find out how it works. Wake up early to sign up (they did a lottery in the morning)
Know, ahead of time, who your first (second, etc) choice of editor is. Have a list of pitch topics.
Don’t worry about fleshed out pitches; there isn’t time. Think in terms of headlines and hooks.
Here’s what I would usually say:
I’m [name] from [city] covering [beat].
(Business card swap)
I ask: Where does your pub fit in the news cycle? What counts as a good news peg for you?
Maybe another quick question or two to narrow down where their needs intersect with the kind of stuff I can write (topic areas, word counts, etc)
Rapid fire pitches: a headline, a few sentences of explanation if needed. Get a yes/no and move quickly to the next. Time will be up before you know it.
They won’t assign stories on the spot; it’s more of a rapid fire “Do you want a pitch on this?”
If they give a yes, or a strong maybe, I star that pitch in my notebook.