The Worth of Writing Workshops

Another week, another email (or two or three) in my inbox for upcoming writing seminars, courses, or retreats. Some are quick two-hour virtual workshops with guest agents/editors and live critiques that cost as little as fifteen bucks, while others are full-blown weeklong getaways to forested cabins or Irish villages that are much, much, ~much~ more than that.

Each time I open one of these emails, I wistfully read through it, consider the feasibility of attending, then begrudgingly delete it and move on with my day. I say begrudgingly because, while I can’t justify the time and expense as anything more than an indulgence, I so want to be that kind of writer. The kind whose dedication to their fledgling career means enrolling in every writing course that comes their way. The kind who wouldn’t bat an eye at dropping a tidy sum to learn craft and industry “secrets” from publishing professionals. The kind who prioritizes author-focused events as valid career investments.

At this point in my writing journey, I’m still gunning for traditional publication. I want that agent and big five or imprint publisher. I want to see my stories on bookshelves across the world. It’s such an important goal for me that, honestly, I could be swayed to shell out the funds necessary to secure it. If I received an invitation for a seminar guaranteeing I’d nab a literary agent afterwards, I’d raid my cookie jar, do the math, and make it work. 

But that’s not how it works. It’s a fact I’ve had reinforced twice before.

In 2017, I spent close to a thousand dollars to attend the annual Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. It was a fabulous weekend, filled with panels, workshops, lectures, and their Pitch Slam agent pitch event (which cost extra and was my primary motivation to attend.) Being there, amongst the other hopeful writers and industry professionals, was the first time I felt that making a living as a fiction writer was not only possible, but something I was meant to do. That feeling dwindled in the weeks afterward as the overwhelming positive requests I got for my first book during the pitch event garnered nothing but form rejections.

Fast forward a few years to 2020, when I spent a similar amount on developmental edits and critiques for my second book and its query materials. The manuscript failed to attract significant agent interest in its first query round, so I was desperate to boost its chances in the second. Did those paid services improve my manuscript and query? Yes! One editor even recommended me to three separate agents. Did it subsequently increase agent interest in my second querying cycle? Not one bit. I finally shelved that book last fall. I now struggle to convince myself that investing in editing services for that project was not a waste of money.

To be clear, there were no promises on their part that paying for those services would lead to agent representation or a book contract. No editor can make that kind of promise. Likewise, there were no guarantees made at the Writer’s Digest conference that I’d get anything more than a chance to pitch. And pitch I did. I splurged on these opportunities with only fervent and perhaps naïve hope on my part that it might lead to success, and it didn’t pan out. Disappointment’s a bitch.

The truth is I could pay to play in every event for which I get invitations and still not draw the attention of an agent or editor. It’s emotionally risky to expect otherwise. That doesn’t mean writing events are worthless if they don’t guarantee publication. The key is to focus on other benefits to be had. Professional events and services offer the chance to gain industry knowledge, improve writing craft through interactive skill-building and informed peer feedback, and perhaps make valuable and supportive connections. If those aspects alone aren’t worth the cost, one can simply save the money and spend time instead.

There’s no shortage of websites and articles on the internet that discuss how to improve plotting, writing mechanics, and queries. Online forums and message boards can be excellent sources of support. Swapping arrangements with trusted writing friends can provide free critiques and beta reads. And programs like Hemingway and ProWriting Aid offer free versions of their grammar check tools. With a little time and persistence, intrepid writers can improve their craft—and their potential for publication success—similarly to attending a conference but with virtually zero costs.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating against paid writing events. They’re excellent experiences for writers who have the financial resources, time, ability, and desire to invest in them. Yet, I know there are many aspiring authors who’d love to take part but can’t swing the money or time for the benefits of professional guidance. Yes, that’s just life, but it’s also one more barrier to often already disadvantaged writers. Fortunately, some organizations offer free events and scholarships aimed at increasing participation for underrepresented authors who otherwise might not afford those opportunities. I love that that’s available.

In my case, I could afford the occasional seminar or writing course if I reweighed my personal spending priorities. My third book is steps away from query submission, and I’m currently outlining my fourth book. I’d love to snag the interest of an agent or publisher with either one. Would professional editing or a craft and critique seminar help?  Maybe. If the right opportunity lands in my inbox, I’ll consider it, but only if I can tamp down my expectations and embrace the learning aspects.

In the meantime, I’ll keep wistfully reading then begrudgingly deleting those emails, because while a writing retreat to Ireland sounds amazing, it’s not something for which I’m willing to break open my cookie jar right now.

  2 comments for “The Worth of Writing Workshops

  1. February 26, 2023 at 9:28 AM

    Okay, clearly our next Writers’ Retreat just has to be in Ireland.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 26, 2023 at 11:01 AM

      Right?? Manuscript Academy is hosting that trip, and as much as I’d love to do it, I can’t justify the cost. Our upcoming retreat is just the right size/time/cost, and with people I know and like! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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