Takeaways from the ASJA writers conference

Takeaways from the ASJA writers conference

A few years ago a freelance writer tried to persuade me to attend the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) conference in New York City. I had lots of practical reasons why not to go:

Me: It’s a 24-hour trip each way for me. I can’t afford to take off the days of the conference and the travel time.

Her: You’ll earn back the cost of the ticket through the meetings with editors. And you can work on the plane.

Me: I fly coach. It’s too tight to work on a laptop.

Her: No problem. Get a tablet with an external keyboard.

…and so on.

This year I coordinated a trip to the US to coincide with hundreds of others converging for this granmama of freelance writer conferences. With my typical roundabout routing, that was more than 10,000 miles each way. And yes, even before calculating how much I’ll earn this year as a result of assignments with editors I met, I can say that it was worth it.

You don’t need to have this particular conference on your radar to be curious about connecting with writers and editors in real life. Here’s what was most valuable for me, and why you might want to decide to show up for a writers conference:

Connections with other writers

At my first conference, I barely got this at all. It seemed like everybody knew each other already. I hovered on the edges.

This time I had an additional concern: Would I be able to recognize all the writers (like you) that I’m connected with online? What if they didn’t have the same haircut and outfit as in their online profile picture? Would they have any idea who I was? As it turned out, some yes and some no to all of these.

To help myself with this, I signed up ahead of time for a couple of smaller outings, such as meals organized around special interests. As an introvert, I found a table’s worth of people far more manageable than a hotel lobby full. I signed up as a mentor to do some one-on-one coaching, and also made a point of introducing myself to people who happened to be sitting near me.

Some great conversations about issues and questions I have that are hard to explore fully online came from all of these.

Meetings with editors

I’ve never met the majority of my clients in real life. The twenty-first-century freelancer doesn’t really need more than an internet connection and a phone line to connect with editors. And the reverse is true: editors have told me that they don’t meet most of their stable of writers in real life either.

This means that real life connections have the potential to make more of a lasting impression than they used to.

I had short meetings with four different editors within an hour. As the freelancing-as-dating analogies go, this is speed dating. (Like most freelancers, I’m  interested in having numerous long-term, nonexclusive relationships with editors.)

These few minutes were enough to say hello and ask about what they’re looking for. For almost everybody, this is an introduction rather than a place to get an assignment: the follow-up emails, with clips and pitches, will determine what happens next.

Skills building

When I first attended ASJA, this was the most important and valuable aspect of the conference for me: Listening to speakers talk about a particular approach or tool. This kind of information is more easily accessed these days, with the proliferation of decent writer blogs and podcasts. These speakers were well vetted, and the caliber was an awful lot higher and interactive than what you’d get if you Googled most of the topics.

I got some great insights and perspectives, such as a new way to think about posting images during reporting (and not scooping myself) during a panel on mobile journalism. If you weren’t following on Twitter, there’s an archive of savvy tweets at #ASJANY17.

Inspiration and momentum

This particular gathering is a really big one, with hundreds of freelancers meeting for a concentrated day or two. Like New York City itself, it both demands tremendous energy and returns it as new ideas, insights, and connections show up in the pages of my notebook.

One writer posed the question: Do you prefer the accomplishment of achieving a milestone goal, or the forward movement of momentum? Ideally, one causes the other to happen in an ongoing cycle.

For me, these two days were a big shot of momentum that will continue to propel me forward to reach my goals.


You don’t have to meet editors in real life to pitch and sell stoy ideas–it can, and normally is, done all via email. Learn how by downloading a copy of the free eguide, “5 Proven Steps to Writing Queries that Sell.”

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