Special Edition: Building A Better Conference Proposal

By Jennie Jarvis

This year marks my first year as the Faculty Chairperson for the Florida Writer’s Association Annual Conference. This means I get the honor and responsibility of selecting the formal programming and faculty for FWA’s largest event of the year. In 2014, the conference will take place Thursday October 23rd – Sunday, October 26th  in Lake Mary, Florida, and I highly recommend everyone who reads this blog should at least consider attending. And because I’m in charge of the programming, you KNOW it will be good (humble wink).

Our deadline for workshop proposals was January 15th, and this means I’m still sorting through them to find the best possible faculty. Writers, agents, editors and publicists from all over the country submitted their ideas on what workshops they could teach at this year’s conference. Since it’s my first year, I want to impress the pants off people, and so I’m only picking the best of the best. But as I wade  through the countless proposals I received, I’m amazed at how many people could use some guidance on how to prepare a better proposal for teaching a workshop at a writing Conference.

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Are you planning on submitting a proposal to teach a workshop at a writing conference? Then check out my top ten tips to consider when writing your next proposal:

1.  Avoid the Popular Topics

If you happen to know a topic is really hot right now (in other words, you see multiple workshops on that topic in your local writing community as well as in larger conferences), then don’t pitch it. I received so many workshop proposals for Kindle publishing and social media, I lost count. And sorry folks, but one our sponsors already claimed the self pubbing workshop and a publicist has the social media workshop. Regardless of how well written the other proposals were, I can’t offer the same workshop twice. You might be an expert on the topic – you might even be the best expert on it – but try for something a bit less popular to increase your chances of getting selected.

2. Propose More Than One Workshop

There are dozens (if not hundreds) of other writers submitting to the same writing conference you are, so the likelihood of you pitching the same workshop as someone else is pretty high. I had several people who only pitched one workshop, and while I liked the idea of their workshop, others also submitted the same topic. On top of that, this year, we want to try to use faculty more than once so attendees who don’t get the chance to hear someone on one day might have a chance to see them on another. If you only submit one workshop idea, I can’t double book you. We currently have too much high quality content to show the same workshop twice.

3. Make Sure The Topic Fits In the Time Frame

If you plan on submitting to a conference, make sure you know how long their workshop sessions are going to be and plan a workshop for that length of time. At FWA, our workshops are only an hour long, and I had several writers who pitched a workshop covering an entire genre in one hour. Those kinds of workshops could take a whole day or even multiple days! I have enough teaching background to know when a writer wants to cover too much. Narrow down your proposal so it looks like you tailor made your workshop for the conference to which you pitch.

This is especially true if you wrote a book on the same topic. I received multiple proposals from people who quite honestly looked like they only wanted to present at the conference because in order to sell their book. You wrote a whole book on the topic; how do you plan to cover it all in one hour? Can’t you just focus on one chapter? Or maybe present on something other than the main topic of your book and then use your strength as a presenter to sell your book? Don’t get me wrong. I know many people only present at conferences to sell their books, but our motto at FWA is “Writers Helping Writers” so please use us as a place to share wisdom and not just hock your wares. A great example of someone who does more than sell her book is Patricia Carpentier, an FWA regular. She has a great book on writing a memoir, but she gives regular workshops at FWA events about multiple aspects of memoir writing. For her, it’s not just about selling her book. It’s also about giving back to other writers.

4. Be Narrow and Unique

While this idea basically restates some of what was said above, I want to reiterate how important it is to chose a very specific topic. If you want to give a workshop on fantasy, then focus on world building or creating new languages. If you want to talk about editing, then focus on content editing or grammar. Take your initial idea and then whittle  it down until you reach the core topic you really want to talk about. Then slap a really creative title on it, and pitch it to me!

5. Pitch More Than Business Workshops

In past years as a regular attendee at FWA, I was always amazed at the overwhelming number of business workshops the conference offered. This was interesting, but I wanted more craft as well. This year, I was able to see why the conferences were always so business heavy. Business was the majority of what people pitched! I can’t speak for every writing conference, but for FWA, if you want to make your proposal stand out from the rest of the crowd, pitch some craft, genre or writer’s life ideas too. This will reduce the chances of you pitching what other people proposed. Also, it makes you look like a wordsmith we want to listen to. Yes, people want to hear about how to sell their work at a writing conference, but if they don’t have the skills they need to create the best manuscript they can, it won’t matter if they know how to sell it.

6. Make Yourself Sound Good

If I see one more bio reading, “John Smith has been writing since he was seven years old…” I might scream. I don’t care what you did when you were seven. I want to know what you have done in your writing career. Your bio is just as important a part of your conference proposal as your workshop idea. Act like the bio you submit to the conference is the only way anyone will ever know if you have published anything. And if you haven’t published anything, explain in that bio why you are an authority figure on the topic you want to teach. For example, one of my faculty members this year has a few publications, but her real life experience as a FWA critique group leader earns her a place teaching about critique groups more than her publications do. Sell yourself in that bio, even if everyone in the organization knows you. It’s not a social club; it’s a professional organization.

7. If You Did It Before, Don’t Do It Again

Keep in mind conferences always value repeat business. If the schedule of workshops looks the same this year as it did last year, why would people pay to go again? Yes, you may have presented a very successful workshop in the past, but unless you are invited to repeat it (as we have done with one person this year), then don’t pitch the same thing. On a related note, if you taught a workshop with a similar attendee pool, don’t pitch the same workshop. For example, here in Florida, FWA has smaller local conferences as well as our big annual conference. Many of the people who attend the local conferences also attend the big one, so if you presented a workshop at a small conference, try to pitch something different at the annual conference.

8. Be Flexible

Remember the Conference needs to worry about a lot more than just your individual workshop. Not only are we trying to get your workshop scheduled, but we have dozens of other workshops, VIP meet and greets, receptions, dinners and award shows to schedule as well. Sometimes, in order to get everything done, the conference needs their faculty to be a bit flexible in working with them. If the conference will give you a free pass to the conference and pay for your transportation and part of your housing, then keep this in mind before you ask for special favors.

9. Proofread!!!

Come on people…. It’s a WRITER’S conference!  Your proposal needs to be well written!

10. Don’t Take It Personally

Most importantly, if the conference does not select your proposal, please don’t take it personally. Like I said above, there are many factors and choices going into planning a conference. Sometimes, you may not get picked because you pitched the same thing as other people, including New York Times Bestsellers, the conference sponsors or special guests. This year, I can tell you there is a particular awesome writer who I wanted to schedule but couldn’t because she pitched workshops already taken by the “big wigs.” So, if you aren’t picked, it isn’t because someone “doesn’t like” you or because you aren’t “good enough.” Take the rejection in stride. Then show up at the conference the year before you want to present, look at the kinds of workshops which are successful and pitch again next year.

And whatever you do, don’t hate the Faculty Chairperson!


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  1. #1 by jamiebmusings on January 28, 2014 - 3:44 pm

    Reblogged this on Florida Writers Conference Blog and commented:
    For my first re-blog here, I wanted to share a post written by the awesome Jennie Jarvis where she discusses writing a conference proposal. Even if you aren’t planning to do a conference workshop at this point, it’s always a good idea to think ahead and these tips could be helpful if you plan to try and speak at libraries or school as well.

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