I think I’m really qualified to talk about this subject, because I’ve given lots of poetry and fiction readings in my life. The college where I got my undergraduate degree had weekly student readings. I gave a couple of readings in grad school, participated in open mics, and read often at my company’s yearly coffeehouse event for employees who write.
So basically, I have sucked at fiction and poetry readings many times. I was probably sucking at readings before some of you were even born.
I know what some of the mistakes are because I’ve made them, again and again. Here they are!
1. Don’t apologize in advance for your work.
When I teach writing workshops, I always set this rule, too. And I know, I know. It’s so hard not to! Let me tell you the many reasons why it’s a terrible move.
First of all, it’s pride in disguise. “Look,” you’re basically saying. “I may not have perfect writing, but I know what perfect writing is. I aspire to perfect writing. My standards are much higher than my current work might lead you to believe. I really am smart, just so we’re clear.”
I hate to break it to you, but unless you are a Pulitzer Prize winner or something (and if so, well done, give my blog a shoutout somewhere, thanks), nobody came to your reading thinking they were going to hear the best writing they ever encountered in their entire lives. If they know you, they just thought it might be nice to hear your stuff. If they don’t know you, they thought it would be fun to hear some poetry or a story.
Secondly, when you apologize for your writing, you’re giving the audience a job. Now they’re supposed to make you feel better. This makes them nervous, and occasionally resentful, because they didn’t want a job. They wanted to be entertained, or to just kind of hang out. So keep your pride to yourself, and leave them alone.
Thirdly, people tend to believe what you tell them about yourself (and this holds true for so many other situations in life as well). If you tell them your writing isn’t good, they may very well accept it as fact, figuring that you of all people ought to know.
Finally, it’s disingenuous. When you decided to do a reading, you decided your writing might be worth hearing, so what’s the point of acting all embarrassed now?
2. Don’t take too long to introduce your work.
If you’re not engaging and clever, this could be boring. If you are too engaging and clever, your work could seem boring by comparison. Keep it brief.
3. Don’t go over your allotted time.
This is especially important if you’re in a situation where another reader, or several readers, are reading in addition to you. It is incredibly rude to the other readers and the organizers of the event, and the audience probably won’t love it either. Practice several times beforehand and time yourself.
4. Just try to be loud and clear.
Some writers are brilliant performers. More often, though, writers are just writers, and public speaking isn’t their strong suit. That is totally fine. Don’t freak yourself out with unrealistic expectations. There’s a reason I titled this post “How to Not Suck” and not “How to Blow Everyone Away With Your Sheer Awesomeness” (though if you can do that, good for you, obviously!)
Just try to make sure you’re heard.
I admit I’m not a huge fan of the academic poetry reading style that turns a poem into a series of spaced-out questions. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. It’s like,
“My mistress’ eyes?…are nothing?…like the sun?…”
To me, it raises unnecessary doubt. Does the mistress have eyes? Are they nothing like the sun, or are they actually a little bit like the sun?
However! For a shy and introverted poet, it may be helpful to have this prescribed way to deliver a poem. So even though it’s not my preference, I wouldn’t hold it against them.
5. Remember, nerves = energy.
It’s normal to be a little shaky. Don’t worry about the fact that you’re nervous, or that will make you more nervous! And don’t burden your audience with declarations of how scared you are, either, if you can help it.
Have something to drink handy in case your mouth goes dry. Imagine your anxiety as energy you can push out into the audience — because it really is.
The only time I gave a reading without being nervous at all, it was flat and dull — hands down my worst reading. A little nervousness is good. And once you get started, some of your fear will probably burn away.
I hope this is helpful, and if you have any other advice for writers giving readers, let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading!