10 Tips for Public Reading

As I finish up my first year in Portland State University’s MFA in creative writing program, I still find myself wondering how writers work up the courage to read their work to a live audience. I’ve learned that when writing for the ear, simplicity in language is easier for the brain to comprehend, as are sentence constructions that front-load the verb. Since we have evolved to rely more heavily on what we see rather than hear, it seems the job of moving our writing from the page and into the air is a particular kind of challenge. Needless to say, I myself haven’t read my work aloud outside of classes. Before I participate in my first public reading, I decided to ask my peers a few questions about reading strategies. I have compiled their feedback in a list that I hope will be as helpful to you as it has been for me.

  1. Attend a lot of readings. As many as you can: open mic nights, featured local readers, visiting writers. See what each reader brings to the experience and what makes some readings different. Ask yourself what kinds of readings do you enjoy most.
  2. Read aloud to your pet. Your cat, dog, hedgehog, or cockatiel might not do much more than tilt their head and stare, but reading your work out loud before you’re in front of a human audience is a must. Since our eyes read differently than our ears process sound, this step can reveal spots in a piece of writing that sound confusing when heard rather than read.
  3. Record your own reading. Listening to your own voice played back might feel strange at first, but try to pay attention to where you pause, the cadence of your voice, etc. Ask yourself, where do you need to slow down so that emphasis exists where you intend? Do you need to slow down altogether? The pace that works best for your audience might feel unnaturally slow for you.
  4. Shoot for variety. A range of emotions will give your audience an experience. Try for something dark, something weird, something hopeful, something long, and something short.
  5. Pretend the world is going to end tomorrow. Feel those nerves melt away!
  6. Don’t be afraid to mess up. Stumbling over a word or two just shows you’re human, a living, breathing writer who is doing something courageous by sharing what you love. People will want to support you all the more.
  7. Pick something you’re excited about. It may help to stick with pieces that you’re most comfortable with, at least when starting out. If you’re feeling nervous, reading something you’re unsure about sharing might only make the experience less enjoyable for you.
  8. Leave your audience wanting more. If you have ten minutes to read, you might choose only to read a few pages of your work. Overwhelm the audience with condensed quality and range.
  9. The room is your party. This is certainly akin to the line “imagine the audience in their underwear” we’ve all heard, but try pretending you’re at your own party. After all, there could be wine involved.
  10. Think about your impact. Think about whether you want to show a lot of personality with inflection and volume, or whether you prefer reading in a more straightforward manner. Of course, this may vary from piece to piece, but ask yourself how you want your readers to walk away feeling and how you might achieve this in ways outside the written word.

Morgaine Baumann is a Student Editor for Portland Review.