You were invited to read your work for an audience! That’s an honor and a privilege because it means someone liked your work enough to ask you to present it. Except now you have to read your writing. Out loud. In front of people.
Giving a reading can be incredibly daunting, especially if you’re not a fan of public speaking, which most people aren’t. But your work deserves to be heard, and you can give an amazing reading, even if you’ve never done one before. I’m 100% an introvert, but I’ve given numerous readings, and if I can do it, you can too.
So, in that spirit, here are a few tips to help you prepare for and give a reading that will have your audience bursting into applause when you finish.
If you're printing your piece, make sure the font is large enough to see. Use double spacing, since it gives you the flexibility to write in the margins or make last-minute edits without compromising readability. If possible, avoid reading from your phone, since it's easy to lose your place. If there's no other option, try using the large font or high-contrast screen settings to make it easier, especially if you're reading in a poorly lit bar.
2. Practice, Practice, Practice
Feeling unprepared can exacerbate nerves. In the days leading up to the event, practice in the mirror at home, or — even better — in front of a few patient friends. You can even read your piece for your pet, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll be an attentive audience. Sometimes all we need is a little extra encouragement.
3. Double-Check Pronunciation
I know what you’re thinking: I wrote this piece. I obviously know all of the words in it. But it never hurts to review your pronunciation of challenging ones. It’s common for avid readers to know words they’ve never heard spoken out loud. Even if you know how they're pronounced in theory, polysyllabic words and those borrowed from foreign languages can also trip you up, especially if you're a bit nervous. If there are words you stumble over repeatedly, try writing them phonetically between lines (another perk of double spacing), replacing them with simpler options, or rephrasing to omit them (Hemingway would approve).
4. Take Your Time
Pace is everything. You may be tempted to rush through just so you can get off the stage, but doing so would be a disservice to the piece you worked so hard to write. Give yourself space to breathe and draw in your audience. Find a reading pace that isn’t too fast or slow and that suitably shows off your language and craft. Use a timer to make sure you're within the 5- or 10- or 15- minute allotment. If you find yourself speeding to fit your whole piece in this window, make cuts. Presenting your work in its entirety won't do you any favors if your audience can't understand you. It can be hard to tell on your own that you're rushing, so seek feedback from your practice buddies. You can even use a metronome app to set your words to your ideal words per minute; 100 to 150 is comfortable for most people.
You don’t want to sound like Ben Stein’s monotone in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you’ve ever read a picture book to a child, you know exactly how the way you read affects how your audience experiences the writing. You know your work better than anyone, so find the perfect places to pause to add extra meaning, and the right words to emphasize. Bring the energy and passion you wrote with to your reading.
I’m not talking about crowd-surfing, but your audience is there, and you should acknowledge them. As tempting as it may be to just stare at your paper as you read, take time to look up and make eye contact with people around the room. Or, if you’d prefer not to look directly at anyone, find spots on the back wall to look at every once in a while.
Did you know that many actors actually identify as introverts? Acting allows them to be someone else, instead of presenting their genuine selves to an audience. It may help to think of your reading as a performance, even if you’ve never acted before. Yes, these are your words, and they may be incredibly personal, but if you think of your reading as you embodying a character, it can allow you to distance yourself and play a part, instead of focusing on how everyone is reacting to your work.
This reading may not be the literary event of the year, and that’s absolutely okay! That knowledge should take some of the pressure off. You don’t have to speak perfectly or hit every beat just right. Your audience won't walk off in a huff if you stop to take a sip of water. Before you begin, simply take a deep breath and relax your shoulders, releasing some of the tightness in your body. Smile at your audience and begin.
Reading your work doesn’t have to be terrifying—it can be a fun, exciting experience that allows you to present your writing to other people. This reading could be your first of many and hopefully the beginning of a long literary career. Good luck!