5 Things I Learned at the Writers’ Institute

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CWC’s Mare Swallow with author Hank Phillipi Ryan at the Writers’ Institute

by Mare Swallow

For the second year in a row, I attended the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute. I came away with all the good stuff you get from conferences: happy feelings, new writer buddies, inspiration, and the (uncomfortable) reminder that there are things I should be doing that I’m not. On top of all that, I learned a few things. Allow me to share five:

1. Specificity in book publishing contracts is good.

Paul S. Levine, Publishing Attorney and Lit Agent, spoke about four areas of a book contract where writers are usually “screwed out of money.” The more specific a contract is, such as specifying a check disbursement date, is better for the author’s bottom line.

2. Develop Your Writer-Friendly Life.

The “writer-friendly life is your life,” said Julie Tallard Johnson. In other words, stop making excuses. “If only I had time/didn’t have kids/wasn’t so busy at work” are ways we talk ourselves out of writing. “Look at your life and ask, ‘What is the next thing I need to do? What is my next step closer to whatever it is I’m working on?’” It might be the next word, the next sentence, or it might be querying one agent.

3. The shorter a reading, the better.

I’ve been saying this for years, and I teach it in my “How to Give a Reading” lecture: Less is more. Never read an entire chapter or entire short story to your audience. You want them to buy the book, right?

I saw this in action. J. Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, read from his first chapter on Saturday afternoon. He got halfway through, right as things were happening, then said, “And I’m going to leave it there.” He closed his book, and there was a collective, frustrated “Aw!” from the audience. Within 2 hours, his book was sold out at the conference.

4. Avoid on-the-nose dialogue.

In other words, show don’t tell. We’ve all heard this, but Peggy Williams gave excellent specifics in her speech on Dialogue. On-the-nose dialogue is too obvious, such as a character saying, “I’m sad,” or “I’m upset about what you did.”  How can you convey anger? Maybe this character leaves the room or stomps off instead of saying his emotions.

5. Don’t think about publishing; think about writing your next sentence.

Award-winning mystery author Hank Phillipi Ryan shared her lessons from publishing, and this is a great one. She urged us not to rush a manuscript, and not to send it to your editor or agent before it’s ready.

She also warned us to be ready for the 40-thousand-word slump. During one of her slumps, she called her mother and said, “I’m never going to finish this manuscript.” To which her mother replied, “You will if you want to.”


The UW-Madison Writers Institute happens each spring, and it’s a great complement to The Chicago Writers Conference. Learn more and sign up for updates on their website.