Posted by on May 29, 2007 in readings and signings | 3 Comments

Choosing material for a reading

It’s not something that gets taught anywhere, as far as I can gather, and yet for most writers a reading is both a terrifying and an important experience. Out there in the audience are friends and family, but also people who may well have influence – editors, publishers, agents, arts body staffers and so on, let alone booksellers if you’re holding your reading in a bookshop. To do well in front of such a gathering is important, but nobody seems to tell you how to go about it.

My own experience is varied. When you’re reading a complete work; a flash or short story, you can relax into the process and at least know the narrative should be coherent to the listener – all you need to do is focus on your delivery and body language. But when you’re reading an excerpt from a longer work you have to achieve much more. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. It’s best to leave the audience wanting more – cut every word possible from your excerpt to make it sing – the audience will NOT complain that you didn’t read exactly what was in the book!
  2. Setting the context is as important as reading the section – do not assume you can improvise this bit; write down your introduction to the story and what the listener needs to know and either read it or learn it by heart.
  3. Read it aloud until you are sick of it – it always takes longer to read a piece than you think. The more you relax into it, the longer it takes because you’re confident about using pauses and gestures to bolster your text. Read, cut, read, cut. Your audience will thank you.
  4. You don’t have to be an actor but you do have to prepare. It’s an insult to the audience if you can’t find your place in the book or turn up with a dozen messy pages. It’s offensive if you say you didn’t bother to prepare for the reading you thought you’d ‘just turn up and see how it goes’ – how would you feel if a waiter said he hadn’t bothered to check the menu, you could just order and random and he’d go and ‘see if the chef felt like cooking’? If you really want to improvise, take a hint from stand-up comics and rehearse your ad-libs! Spontaneity is very hard to pull off and takes as much rehearsal as preparing a piece to read, so you might as well prepare one anyway.
  5. It’s painful if the reader loses their way, but most listeners will be rooting for you to do well if that happens – don’t panic and remember we are all human, most of us listening are also writers and we have all shared your experience – take a deep breath and start again.
  6. As for practical hints – don’t try to read from the book unless your eyesight is brilliant and you are very confident; the layout of the printed page is inimical to good performance – that’s why actors work from scripts not galleys. Use a BIG CLEAR font. If you need to, give yourself instructions in the text (breathe) is a good one, as is (slow down) – and put them in red ink or highlight them. I love readings when I’m doing them, but my hands shake like stink – to get round this I print my excerpt and paste it into a big heavy book. The advantages are threefold: 1, the book weighs down my hands so their shaking doesn’t show; 2, I’m familiar with the book and the layout I use, so my confidence is boosted by remembering how many other nice readings I’ve taken part in with this book in my hands and 3, if I ever get asked for an encore (it’s happened twice now), all my other readings are pasted into the book so I can choose one and launch right in.


  1. Anonymous
    30th May 2007

    But there’s one aspect of a public reading you’ve not touched on here, but which would count me out of this: public speaking! I’ve reorganised major parts of my life to avoid public speaking: right down to having three degrees, two undergraduate and one post graduate, the latter being an honours degree, but which will never be converted to a Masters due to the public speaking component.

    And how sick is this. Both my parents are still alive, but one of the main things I think about on their deaths is that, although I am one of five children, I am the only son, thus will be expected to speak at the funeral. And that’s the aspect I think on, over them dying.

    Public speaking just scares me witless, and is the one thing I’ve come across in my life I don’t seem to be able to beat. It’s a wall, I’ve hit it every time I’ve tried, until the stage I now focus simply on avoiding it. I stand up, breathing goes, voice goes, unavoidable. And the breathing is somehow the major thing: it’s like I’ve heard bad asthma described to me, I keep breathing in and in and in, can’t get the air out, then end up like an overfilled balloon.

    Sorry, strayed a little. But anybody with a mircle cure for this would literally change a life.

    (Silly thing is, in a group of friends I know well, utterly no problem, indeed I pontificate everyone to boredom. Also, if I can stay sitting, I can get through such an engagements, because somehow I am able to control my breathing better when sitting. But add standing to formality: forget it.)

    Mark Hubbard

  2. B.A. Goodjohn
    30th May 2007

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m getting ready for a reading and I hadn’t thought about cutting from the original published text. But you are right. The word on the ear is a different animal to the word on the eye.

    And that bit about hand shakes and heavy books – brilliant advice. Now I just need to find a really heavy book!

    Hugs, hon.

  3. Kay Sexton
    31st May 2007

    Mark, I really empathise. That kind of fear is quite common, which doesn’t stop it being utterly terrifying and painful. I can suggest a couple of things that have worked for clients of mine:

    1 – start by reading aloud alone. Just wait till the house is empty and have a go.

    2 – read somebody else’s work. Pick a story you love, read it aloud into a tape recorder and play it back to yourself. Something funny is really good, as you will hear the chuckle in your own voice. Keep reading, taping and playing back until you become familiar with the sound of your own voice, which removes a lot of the fear (although not the loathing, I still hate the sound of my own voice).

    3 – read on the move. Walk around! Wave your arms! Be the hammiest actor you can think of with one hand still on the book – it frees you from the sense of being pinned to the spot and that’s a lot of the fear. Once you’ve got other things to think about (try reading aloud while walking upstairs) the fear declines and again, familiarity begins to erode the horror.

    4 – if you belong to a writer’s group, suggest once a month you all read aloud a section from the work of another writer in the group. Often it’s the fact that it’s our own words that terrifies us – we can relax and do better when we’re ‘reading for somebody’ and trying to do our best on their behalf.

    5 – sit down. Yes, you can! I’ve done two sitting down readings – it’s actually more difficult for a regular performer to read sitting down as it impedes the lungs, but there’s no reason you have to stand up.

    6 – hang on. If you do have to stand up, demand a lectern. It means you’ve got something to hang on to (and hide behind) and you can shuffle your feet without people seeing.

    7 – get a coach. If you really want to learn to do this, many actors and singers will teach you the principles of breath, relaxation and projection for a few quid in hand. Getting the techniques under your belt is a large part of the confidence that most public speakers have.

    8 – Winston Churchill was crap at school debates. Come the day, cometh the man – when you have something you want or need to say, you’ll probably find you can. Mind you, he did get a coach, rehearse constantly and learn to read his audience. It’s well documented that in the early days he would also hang onto his lectern!

    Bunny – you will slay them in the aisles, and you know it! Wish I could be there to listen.


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