Retreats, Conferences, and Week-Long Workshops: Which One is Right for You?

Written by Caitlin Jans | July 24, 2017

For a long time I wrote in the solitude of my room, alone and without a community. Slowly over time I started to branch out. I attended classes, workshops, and then retreats and conferences. I also earned a Masters of Fine Arts.  I think it is fair to say I have experienced a lot of the variety the writing community at large has to offer. All of these options have their advantages and their disadvantages.

One of the things that I want to mention before delving into the details, is that while the most important factor in publication is the quality of your work and the fit with publisher, connections are also a factor. Knowing fellow writers, publishers, editors, agents, etc, can make a big difference in your publishing options. Every single retreat, conference, and workshop I have attended in the past has ultimately led to one kind of publication or another.

This article focuses on breaking down the different aspects of Retreats, Conferences and Week-long Workshops with a focus on what they really give you if you attend. I will focus on the pros, the cons, and also the affordability. Just know that all three can really benefit your career as a writer in surprising ways.

Writing Retreats/Short Term Residencies

Writing Retreats are a wonderful opportunity to write, often in a beautiful natural setting, but there are other options as well. Some places are full time artist retreats, dedicated just to writers and artists.  There are famous writer retreats like Yaddo and Hedgebrook, and less established ones like The Mineral School. National parks, famous artist homes, and other places often have retreat opportunities. There are a lot of variables involved here but most retreats cover your meals so that you can focus mostly on writing.

Often at the retreats there will be a group of writers and artists there at the same time, so there are opportunities to build community, but you can also focus on solitude and your writing if you choose to do so. Retreats at places other then retreat centers tend to be more focused on having one writer and artist at a time. Retreats can be as short as a week or as long as a year. Most are between two weeks and one month in length. You can always just try to arrange your own writing retreat if you find a cheap place to stay.

Pros: Writer’s retreats often have an application fee, but most are free once you get in.  Some have an additional cost attached, but most are subsidized in one way or another. The retreat experience can be inspiring and can give you lots of time to write and think. If you are at a more established center it can also really help you build your community and network with other writers.

Cons: It can be expensive to apply to some of the retreats, it can also be time consuming. It can be tricky to find the right one for you, many have geographical, economical, or other criteria that you have to match. Depending on the retreat you apply for it can be very competitive to get in.

Conferences

There are so many conferences. Some are huge events such as the AWP conference. Others are much smaller. If you have never attended a conference for writers before I encourage you to research local options first, even if they don’t seem like the perfect fit they are a good way to get your foot in the door. Also at small conferences it can be a lot easier to meet people, and the experience itself can be less exhausting. Librarians tend to know about local conferences, but Googling the name of your town plus the words “authors conference” can also work. If your town is particularly small try doing this with name of a nearby city or the name of the county. If you are a specific kind of writer, such as a children’s book author or a Christian author, there are conferences that focus on those things.

I have attended local conferences and traveled for large conferences and have found both worthwhile. At conferences there are panels, presentations, and sometimes other opportunities (such as agent meetings) that can be very educational and engaging. You can learn about writing and publishing from conferences, although I never do any writing at conferences outside of personal notes; too much is going on for that.

This article is a great one to read for even more information about conferences.

Pros: Timely information about how publishing really works. Lots of opportunities to meet other writers as well as publishers and agents. A great place to learn ways to improve your writing and increase your chances of being published.

Cons: The experience itself can be exhausting. Conferences can also be expensive particularly if you have to travel there. Although many have early bird discounts and/or volunteer opportunities.

Week-long Workshop

A week-long workshop is usually taught by a famous author. But when you sign up for that workshop you don’t just work with the author, you get lectures by the other writers who are teaching there, visiting lectures, and other things, usually including an evening reading series, and sometimes meetings with agents and editors. It is good to do lots of research to find the right one for you. Many colleges host them, such as Sarah Lawrence, and some literary journals have them as well, Tin House has one of the more established ones.

You often get to know fellow students and instructors rather well. Sometimes time to write is built in. Sometimes it is not.

Pros: All the benefits you usually get from a workshop, which include peer feedback and instructor feedback. Plus you often get timely writing and publishing advice and meet great people.

Cons: You generally have to travel to attend these workshops. The experience can also be very expensive, although there are sometimes scholarships available.

Bio: Caitlin Jans is a poet, a novelist, and the editor of Authors Publish Magazine. Her writing can be found in The Conium Review, The Moth, Labletter, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Facebook.