Readings That Work for You and Your Listeners

Public readings of your written work—published or not yet published—are a great way to gain exposure for your writing and to build your author platform. Here are 16 rules to follow.
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By Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

Public readings of your written work—published or not yet published—are a great way to gain exposure for your writing and to build your author platform. As both an author who has frequently read my work in public, and from hosting two popular readers’ series, I’ve developed some preferences, and a few pet peeves when it comes to writers reading their work.

Most of the poets and writers that have been my guests have offered beautiful experiences to their audiences. The smaller group who did poorly did so for one of two main reasons: They weren’t prepared, or they made it all about themselves rather than the listeners. Readings are there to entertain your listeners.

Here are tips to help you get into the vantage of your audience:

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Mastering Public Readings: 16 Tips for Reading Your Work to an Audience

1. The audience is there to be entertained. 

They don’t need to meet every character, learn the entire plot or be impressed by your purple prose.

2. Works in progress are fine but polish them up. 

Some reading opportunities lend themselves to reading works in progress. This can be a great opportunity for the writer to get a feel for the impact of her story, but it should not be at the expense of the listeners. Reading selections don’t have to be in their final edited state but should not be in rugged rough-draft form. Whatever you read should be a cohesive, engaging experience for your listeners.

For prestigious readers’ series, some of which are recorded and broadcast, as well as for media interviews, it’s best to choose a polished selection that is in audience ready shape. And practice the work aloud to prepare.

3. Limit exposition. 

Listening is different than reading silently. When reading aloud, expository writing and lengthy descriptions tend to be less engaging. Unless you’ve got mad acting skills that can make reading a phonebook exciting, I recommend selecting a more accessible excerpt.

4. Scenes work well. 

Public readings that include action and crisp dialogue are generally better for captivating audiences than lengthy description. Usually a scene with just two or three characters works best for short readings. It’s hard for audiences to keep track of a lot of characters they’ve just met.

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5. Choose emotionally engaging pieces. 

Whether it’s conflict, suspense, intrigue, or humor, engaging listeners on an emotional level makes a reading intriguing. Appeal to their hearts, their curiosity, or their funny bones, and they’re in.

6. Select an excerpt with stand-alone value. 

A reading should provide an entertaining experience for listeners, even if they don’t read your book. Being entertained is what makes listeners want to read your book.

7. Shorter is usually better. 

Whether you’re one of several readers at an event, you’re reading an excerpt at your book’s launch, or you’re reading as part of an interview or panel, your host will likely offer you a time limit. Most salons featuring multiple readers will give you five to ten minutes to read. If you’re a singular, featured reader you may get more time, but it’s likely better to do two or three short readings rather than one 20 minute one. Give them a taste, not a whole feast.

8. Limit backstory and too much setup. 

If you’re reading from a section other than the beginning of a book, you might need to set it up for your listeners by mentioning who a character is or what happened just prior to the scene you’re reading. If this can be done in 30 seconds or so, that’s fine. If it requires much more explanation than that, you might want to choose a different passage.

Poets are sometimes the worst offenders here, offering lengthy backstory to each and every poem. A bit of explanation is fine, but your work should speak for itself. By all means, do share brief tidbits of the origin of the story or poem to make it interesting. Brief is key.

9. Honor time limits. 

This is just good manners. It’s squirm-worthy for the host, fellow readers and possibly the audience if one reader grossly exceeds her allotted time at an event featuring multiple readers. Reading, like speaking, usually takes longer than you think. Practice aloud and time it to see if your selection fits into the time limit. The last thing a host wants to do is fetch the hook to pull you off stage. She’ll likely respond by simply not inviting you back.

10. No shuffling! 

Whether you’re a poet reading multiple pieces or you’re reading an excerpt or two from a larger work, have your selections clearly marked and organized. Put your poems into an order rather than deciding on the spot. It’s tedious to listeners when readers shuffle through papers or thumb through their book to find a reading. It also gives the impression that you didn’t prepare.

 Enter the Writer's Digest Poetry Awards!

Enter the Writer's Digest Poetry Awards!

11. Alter or rearrange your written work for a livelier reading. 

I usually print out my reading copy onto paper rather than reading it from a book. I mark up my copy. I use a Sharpie to cut out most of the dialogue attributions (he said, she said, etc.) because when reading aloud, they’re often not needed. I cross out lines and paragraphs that slow the action for listeners or that are only relevant to the whole book, rather than just the scene being read. I may write in a word or two for clarification to replace a whole paragraph that I edited out. When I’m done with it, my copy looks like a redacted secret document. That’s okay. It’s all done with the audience in mind. If you prefer, you can print a cleaner altered copy.

12. Mix it up. 

If you’re reading more than one excerpt, story, or several poems, I suggest choosing pieces that are varied in tone. Variety adds interest. Fifteen minutes of elegies can be taxing.

13. Avoid the bait and switch. 

Learn from a mistake I made as a new author. I read two excerpts from my novel that were lighthearted, even funny. Those are legitimate parts of the book and provide contrast to much darker story lines. I had more than one reader (and one who reviewed the book on Amazon) report that they felt “deceived,” thinking they were buying a light romance rather than the dark and tragic love story that it is. Make sure that at least one of your selections represents the nature of your book.

14. Select content appropriate to the event. 

When it comes to explicit material, be thoughtful. Strong language, violence, or sexual scenes may be fitting for one venue and wrong for another. If you’re reading on the radio, FCC requirements limit the use of some vocabulary. When you’re speaking or reading, honor the guidelines because your host or station can be fined.

If you’re reading in a public venue such as a library or a bookstore where patrons, including children, might wander in unaware, you may choose to limit strong language, select a PG-rated scene or alter some of the coarser language. Poetry slams and adults-only open-mike events may be a no-holds-barred environment but not every event is. Ask your host for input about their guidelines.

15. Don’t give away the farm. 

I attended one book launch event where the author read so many excerpts of her book that I didn’t feel that I needed to buy it. Give a taste, not the meal. And please—no spoilers.

16. One drink beforehand is likely plenty. 

Many writing events include alcohol, and lots of writers find a drink calms their nerves before an event. If that works for you, great, but you want to be relaxed, not sloppy. I’ve been to more than one poetry slam or reading event where the guest (or worse, the host) imbibed too heavily and crossed from fun to embarrassing. Read first, drink later.

Selecting and delivering readings is a frequent part of a writer’s public speaking life. It pays to put some thought into how to select and how to deliver what you read. It also pays to develop your “reading chops.” Learn to play with the dynamics of your voice. Channel your inner performer. After all, you want people to fall in love with your stories. And when they do, it’s glorious.

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Betsy Graziani Fasbinder is an award-winning novelist and memoirist as well as a public speaking coach. She now shares her expertise in coaching public speaking in her new book, From Page to Stage: Inspiration, Tools, and Public Speaking Tips for Writers. Reach her at www.betsygrazianifasbinder.com.

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