The Importance of Writers' Conferences or Why a Social Life Matters

by Susan E. Kennedy

In a small workshop two years ago, a fellow graduate student pointed to several sentences in a chapter of the novel I was struggling to write.

“Why so many questions?” he said. “Readers will be asking themselves this already, they don’t need the characters to do it. All of these questions distract from the story. But, then again, I could be biased.”

He wasn’t. Question marks that had before eluded my attention now jumped off the page as if they were typed in red. I deleted them.

Whether you’re a writer or appreciator (i.e. reader) or neither, you fight against or harbor the stereotypical image of a pale, shy, bespectacled bibliophile who likes to discuss the importance of word choice and gets worked up over where the commas belong in a sentence. Okay, maybe the image you have isn’t that extreme, but you get my point. Writers are introverts obsessed with words, quiet people who live quiet lives.

Maybe, but not alone.

No book springs complete and published from an ivory tower and no author is successful without readers to provide feedback: friends, mentors, and fellow writers. Once a story or essay or poem is drafted, it needs to be tested on a trusted confidant who can offer suggestions and advice with gentle honesty.

Where, though, do you find readers?

In a group of fellow writers, of course. And where do writers hang out?

At writers’ conferences.

We writers find our trusted confidants in various places, in writers’ groups, at graduate school, in community writing classes. There is, though, no place to meet other writers like a writers’ conference. Conferences bring together writers from many backgrounds interested in various genres who are writing at all levels for a day, or more, of classes, workshops, panel discussions, and presentations. Conferences sometimes offer bonuses such as author signings and five-minute pitch sessions with literary agents and editors.

Dozens of conferences large and small are offered every year. Typing “writers’ conferences” into Google produces a list of 19,700,000 hits, and flipping through any writers’ magazine offers a taste of those with the largest advertising budgets. Some conferences focus on specific genres, such as The Frost Place’s Conference on Poetry and Teaching, while others welcome writers toiling in all forms, such as the Cape Cod Writers Center summer conference, and almost are for both new and established wordsmiths. Where I live in southern New Hampshire, at least three are held each spring: Writers’ Day (run by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators New England Regional Conference, and the Seacoast Writers Association’s annual Spring Writers Conference.

During a brief discussion with a friend of a friend at Writers’ Day last spring, I received the feedback that I didn’t even know I needed. When he asked what I was working on, I told him about my novel manuscript, completed almost two years before and now languishing in my desk drawer. I didn’t tell him that even though I now had the time to work on it, I could not seem to summon up the enthusiasm I needed to drag it out and start the next draft.

“It’s a historical novel,” I said, “set in New England just before the American Revolution. The protagonist is my ancestor.”

His eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. “That’s a great hook. Make sure you mention that when you pitch it to a publisher.”

I had spent so much time thinking about the story and characters that I had forgotten about its originality. At home after the conference, I found a pen and started the next draft.

Writing is a difficult but interesting, satisfying vocation or avocation. Whether the author of a blog or book, journalist or novelist, poet or playwright, no one needs to face the writing life without a community. Conferences open doors for writers to grow, learn, and connect with each other, all the ingredients for a great social life.

Susan E. Kennedy is a fiction writer and freelance copyeditor. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction and Nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University and is a member of the Amoskeag literary journal’s editorial board. Her essays and short stories have appeared in several New England publications, and she is currently at work on two novels. She can be reached at

Photo credit top: byrne7214


Anonymous said...

I agree, that you must have someone who will read over your work and give you constructive feedback, like 'What's with all these exclamation marks! they're driving me insane!'

When you're writing, sometimes you really can't see the wood for the trees. Thanks for the insights, Susan, really enjoyed it.

gary davison said...

that comment was by me, by the way, sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Gary! Glad you enjoyed my article. Congratulations on "A Tale of Two Halves" -- publication is always exciting! --Susan