What’s the Difference Between Conferences, Workshops, and Retreats?

What's the difference between conferences, workshops, and retreats?If you’ve been a writer for any number of years, most likely you’ve attended (or thought about attending) a conference, workshop, or retreat. And if you’ve been running in writers circles for a while, you’ve maybe experienced all three. But if you’re new to the world of writing, you might be wondering what the difference is between a conference, workshop, and retreat, and what you might hope to take away from each one of these. Not to worry, we’ll give you an overview of each with tips on how to make the most of your experience.


The granddaddy of them all, conferences are primarily networking events, a place where writers meet authors, agents, and editors, usually with a chance to pitch their books or receive a critique (from work submitted ahead of time). Typically these events last one to three days, with pitch sessions and classes on topics ranging from the craft of writing to marketing strategies. Socializing is a big part of conferences, with impromptu critique sessions held in participants’ rooms as well as various opportunities to talk with other writers over breakfast or before classes start. Often conferences host contests with an awards banquet on the final evening.

To make the most of your conference, decide what you want from the experience. Do you want to pitch your finished novel? Then do your research to craft the perfect pitch, including finding out about the editor or agent who will hear it. Would you like a critique? Take advantage of critique sessions held in other writers’ rooms or enter contests which give you feedback on your work. If you’re wanting to take advantage of writing time alone, realize it isn’t as easy with the social environment and class schedule, but it can be done. You might have to miss some of the activities to do it, though. Look at your materials ahead of time and plot out which events you want to attend and which you don’t mind missing. If you find two classes being held at the same time, enlist a friend to take notes in the one you’ll miss, and, if possible, collect extra handouts for you.

Generally speaking, if the conference is well planned, you’ll get what I call “writer buzz”–a sense of excitement and inspiration from all those writers gathered in one place. Your job is to take that enthusiasm home with you to work on your next project.Workshop.


Workshops typically focus on learning some aspect of the craft or, perhaps, marketing. These can range from an afternoon to a weekend, or even longer (think Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and while networking can happen, it’s really about learning the craft or some skill pertaining to the publishing world. Socializing is less of a factor, so if you tend to dread that type of interaction, it’s possible to sit in the back and simply soak up what you came to learn. Often these events carry a smaller price tag, which make them ideal for the beginner or the writer who doesn’t have a lot of time to invest.

The best way to take advantage of your workshop is to research what you can about the topic and instructor beforehand and be prepared to learn–bring notebooks, pens, laptop, water, and whatever else you need to enhance your time there. If the class includes writing exercises, muster the courage to participate by reading what you write out loud. Not easy, I know, even for us veterans of the pen. If you have any questions for the instructor, ask them during the session, if appropriate, or afterward.


Writer's retreat.High on inspiration, retreats generally promise a gorgeous locale and plenty of space for solo writing. While instruction can be part of the weekend or week (or longer), the point of the getaway is to write in a setting that inspires creativity. Sometimes these events combine writing with other activities–hiking or horseback riding or yoga, and depending on the destination, they are often the most costly. Social activities can be part of this writing vacation, but often it’s up to participants as to how much time they spend creating versus learning and socializing.

Thoroughly research the writing retreat and location before committing your hard-earned bucks so you know what’s expected, and don’t squander your time. Take what you need to make the most of this opportunity to work on your writing–or, in some cases, leave behind what might hinder you. If you’re lacking discipline, or, in my case, plagued with a serious case of writer’s block, don’t make the same mistake I did by going on a retreat at the wrong time. I ended up watching Duck Dynasty reruns while my writer friends were making some major progress on their works-in-progress. Not that it wasn’t fun hanging out in my room with the bearded folk, but that wasn’t the point of the getaway. Fortunately several writer friends had booked a vacation house in the offseason for a casual retreat, and we paid the rent six ways, so it wasn’t too costly. And Lake of the Ozarks was beautiful, though the lovely lake view from my balcony failed to inspire me to create.

Regardless of the event you choose, do your homework before you part with your money. Once you decide to go, commit to making the most of the conference, workshop, or retreat. If you come away with more knowledge, pages, connections, or inspiration, you chose well.

Note: Watch for my updates next week from the Dreamweaver’s Writer’s Retreat in beautiful Deep Creek, Maryland, where I will be teaching a class, socializing, and hopefully being inspired to write. I’ll let you know.

Have you attended a writer’s conference, workshop, or retreat lately? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Overcoming Your Fear of Sharing Your Writing with Others

One Writer’s Conference Can Be All the Catalyst You Need

Can a Writing Conference Help You Become a Successful Author?





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