6 ways to prepare so you get the most out of attending a writers’ festival

By Nat Newman

You’ve bought your ticket, booked your accommodation and sorted out a babysitter. You’re totally ready to attend the amazing writers’ festival that’s coming up! There’s just one problem… you’re a tiny bit terrified. Who will you speak to? What if you don’t know anyone? Is it okay to ask authors questions? Will you be the dag in the corner too scared to talk to anyone at the coffee break?

These are valid concerns. As writers, we tend to be a solitary bunch. We like our alone time, thank you very much. A writers' festival or conference, by definition, is a group event. It involves networking and – ugh – talking to people.

When you’re having thoughts like this, keep one thing in mind – just about everybody else feels the same way too. You are not alone (much as you’d like to be).

There are some proactive things you can do before attending an event that will make your experience more enjoyable and valuable. So here is your ultimate guide to preparing to go to a writers' festival.

1. Study the program
It might be a bit nerdy to study a conference program. But it’s also super helpful! Do you know any of the speakers? Is there anyone you’re dying to see or a workshop that looks valuable? Circle the events you’d like to attend and give your day a bit of structure. It’ll save you from wandering around at a loose end with no idea where to go next.

Conversely, if you don’t know any of the speakers, do a bit of research. You don’t need to be able to write a thesis about them, but just spend a few minutes looking at their website, Twitter or articles. Which speakers are going to engage you? Make you feel challenged? Tell you what you need to hear? Which speakers have a similar history to you or can offer you a new perspective on a topic?

Of course, you also want to be impulsive and see where the day takes you. Sketch out a schedule for yourself, but don’t be afraid to change it. You might sit next to someone at the first session who encourages you to see a particular speaker or panel. Dare to be inspired!

2. Set a goal
Once you have a clear idea of the agenda, set yourself a goal. Uh-oh, this is starting to sound like work, right? Well, it is! A festival should be fun, but you also want to get something out of it. They can be great opportunities to network and connect with like-minded people. Or you may just learn a new productivity hack. Either way, have a clear purpose before you go.

Some good writers' festival goals are:

  • chat with at least one other writer
  • write a blog post about the festival
  • meet with one of the speakers
  • ask three questions.

And don’t be afraid to set loftier goals! Having said that, make sure your goal is realistic. Everyone loves a moonshot, but if you go in thinking “I am getting a book deal today” you may be disappointed. Or worse, you may end up being annoying. Don’t be the person who thrusts their manuscript under a toilet cubicle door.

3. Get social

As part of your research, you will need to get social… Social media, that is. If the event is on Facebook, mark yourself as Interested or Attending and see who else is going. Twitter and Instagram are great for event preparation, so even if you’re not much of a Tweeter, now is a good time to join.

Follow the event and find out the hashtags that they’re using. Let people know that you’ll be going and find out who else is attending. Interact with the organisers and show them support. Remember, this is a big day for them too. Everyone likes to hear kind words, especially on social media.

One great thing about Twitter is that it’s a really stress-free way to connect with fellow writers and readers. It is perfectly okay to send a tweet to someone saying, “hey, I’m also going to that conference, can we meet for a coffee?” You may meet your next best writing friend.

If you’re new to social media, or you’re not sure how to utilise it as a writer, check out our course Build Your Author Platform.

4. Reach out
You can also reach out specifically to people you want to connect with. This sounds terrifying to most writers! You couldn’t possibly contact one of the panellists, could you? Well, yes, actually you can. Writers and speakers are people too. They are probably also at the festival by themselves and would love a friendly email inviting them for a coffee and a chat.

Hopefully, you’ve already been following them on social media and interacted with them a few times. That’ll make it easier to introduce yourself and you won’t sound like a total weirdo.

5. Take a buddy
If all this is still too much for you, take a buddy. It doesn’t have to be a fellow writer – your mum, your best friend, even your drinking pals – anyone who enjoys reading, writing, or learning something new. Just remember to talk to other people too!

6. Breathe, relax, enjoy
Many writers find the idea of attending a festival or conference totally overwhelming. You know you should network but it’s just so hard. It’s tempting to stand in the corner, sipping your tea and surreptitiously eyeing other people who are having conversations. How are they doing that? Why is it so easy for them?

It’s not. Everyone at that festival feels the same way you do. At some point, they took hold of their fear, squashed it down, and went and spoke to someone.

Look to your left. There’ll be someone standing there just like you, staring at their phone because they’re too nervous to make any conversations. Breathe, relax, and go over and say hello. Because you already researched the program, you can ask them about what sessions they’re attending. And because you’ve been following the organisers on Instagram, you can tell your new acquaintance about the chocolate fountain on level two.

And because you’re both nervous, and you’re both writers, you’ll quickly find you have something to talk about (even if it’s just how nervous you are!).

And most importantly, prepare to be engaged, to learn, and to have fun. It’s a festival, after all.

Nat Newman is a freelance writer.

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