I just came home yesterday from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writers Institute, and it was a very good conference. I learned a lot, met a lot of very nice people, and came home energized and excited about writing and being a writer.
The conference was very welcoming, everyone was friendly, the staff were helpful and nice, and the conference director (Laurie Scheer) was accessible and always available. There were a variety of topics covered, something for every writer, and for the most part I found the presenters knowledgeable and helpful (a couple of them could have been better prepared or practiced, though). At any conference, some of the sessions will be better than others, and occasionally one won’t live up to your expectations of what it would be, and that’s normal–but the presenter should always be polished, and I suggested that as a (minor) future improvement.
I was pleasantly surprised by the level of support and encouragement the conference and its presenters gave to different pathways to publication, not just the traditional–self-publishing was touted equally with traditional publishing, the pros and cons of each path were outlined honestly and without bias, and there were discussions of the different ways to independently publish (do-it-yourself and hybrid/assisted). I found that wonderfully supportive, and notable.
The one big critique I had–and I pointed this out both in person to the director, and on the evaluation survey–is that the faculty/presenters were not very diverse. Of the 38 speakers, all but one were white. There was slightly more diversity among the attendees, but I still found minorities to be under-represented.
When I brought this up in person to Laurie Scheer, she was very receptive, and said that in the past they have had more minority speakers (racial/ethnic as well as LGBT) on the faculty, and it is something that they strive for. She explained that they put out calls for proposals, and send the call to a diverse group of authors/agents/editors; but that this year almost all of the proposals had come from white individuals. I can empathize with her frustration, and know it is not easy, but at the same time I feel that more can be done to ensure a diverse set of voices.
I chose to attend the Writers Institute this year after receiving the sad news in January that the Midwest Writers Workshop for 2018 was cancelled while they restructure and rebuild the conference. I have written previously about what happened with MWW this year, so I won’t rehash any of that here. Overall, I found the Writers Institute had the same general structure and feel as MWW, similar size and format, same Midwestern hospitality, but with a few notable differences.
There were about 300 attendees at this year’s Writers Institute, which is very close to the 330 or so who usually attend MWW. The panels and break-out sessions were structured similarly, and covered a similar range of topics. If pushed, I would say that MWW does a slightly better job of ensuring good presenters, but overall it was very similar. On the flip-side, I would say that the Writers Institute does a better job of spotlighting different paths to publication; I know Jane Friedman always covers this in her annual mid-conference speech at MWW, but otherwise MWW focuses pretty heavily on traditional-publishing. Incidentally, Jane will be one of the presenters at next year’s Writers Institute.
Midwest Writers Workshop is still my “home” conference, and my hope continues to be that MWW comes back in 2019 better than ever–but time will tell. Regardless of what may come with MWW, I would be happy to attend the UW-Madison Writers Institute again in the future, and would recommend it to others.