How to Read Your Writing in Public

Confession time:

I have no New York publisher.
I have no agent.
Hell, I haven't even finished writing my novel. (It will be done in January, I swear!)

Still, I've been able to read excerpts from the manuscript more than fifty times at venues in Boston, New York, and once while on a ski vacation in Revelstoke, Canada.

One more confession: I'm no actor, but I've gotten better at reading in public. And you can, too.

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(At this story slam shown in the video above, I was terrified. I was there to video-tape a friend and wasn't expecting to go on stage. Despite my jerky performance -- note the left hand flopping around and the hyperventilating -- I won.)

Tips for Reading, Rewriting, and Performing

(Note: These tips can apply to poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and memoir.)

1) Choose Short, Complete Scenes that Stand Alone

A complete scene is like a miniature story: There's a beginning, middle, and an end. There's narrative tension, conflict, and some kind of resolution. If the scene has some dialog, all the better.

For reading out loud, rewrite the scene so that any background is woven into the story. Nothing is more tedious than listening to an author provide a laundry list of characters, settings, and background material before he starts to read.

2) Did I Mention: Keep Each Piece Short?

In my experience, seven minutes for a piece is probably the maximum. An ideal length is five minutes. An even better length is three minutes. If you're doing a long reading, mix in multiple pieces of different lengths, instead of one giant story.

Another reason for shorter pieces:

  • At a poetry slam or a poetry open mic, you can read anything you want -- including pieces that are not poetry -- as long as the piece is under three minutes. If you’re a prose writer and anyone asks what you want to read, say it's a "narrative poem." You don't need to win the slam, you just have to get up on stage for practice.

  • At many story slams, your piece has to be less than five minutes in length. If you're over the time limit, you'll be penalized. Too far over and they may yank you off the stage.

3) Dialogue

  • Move attributions to the beginning of the sentence; this makes it clear for the listener who is speaking.

  • Better yet, use a different voice, accent, or cadence for each character. For internal dialogue or a character's thoughts, talk in a softer voice. Starting every sentence with "he said" or "she said" gets boring, fast.

  • Try a physical gesture to differentiate a character. If a character has a beard, scratch it when he's talking.

  • Also, the narrator should always face the same direction, while other characters can face the opposite direction. In my pieces, I turn my head to the left for the narrator and to the right for other characters.

Some voice variations most people can master:

  • Quick and jerky for neurotic characters

  • Slow for confident characters or braggarts

  • A Spanish accent

  • A Russian accent

  • A Southern accent

  • A flirty woman's voice

  • A deep man's voice for an authority figure

You also may want to avoid scenes with too many characters. Unless you're the next Rich Little, three characters in one scene is probably the limit.

4) Rewriting a Piece for a Reading

  • Simplify: Unless you're writing poetry, simplify or cut descriptions of scenery and people unless they're really memorable. The scene should focus on action. Instead of using three words to describe something use two. Instead of "a giant, three-headed snake," say, "a three-headed snake." Instead of "white, crusty stains," say, "crusty stains." (In the videos above and below, I used the three-word versions of these phrases, which I have since cut to two.)

  • Remind: If you have a detail or character mentioned early in your piece that returns later in the story, emphasize the detail on first mention, and then remind readers when it appears later -- don't assume they'll remember something from three minutes earlier. As a listener, you have less time to absorb the story.

5) Other Stuff to Remember

  • If you're reading off a printed page, print out the text in a large font. (I use 18 point). It will make it easier for you to look up at the audience periodically without losing your place.

  • Mark on the page in pencil when you're supposed to make certain gestures.

  • Pause after jokes, or key lines, let them land, let people laugh. But start reading before the laughter has completely subsided. If no one laughs, take it like a pro and keep going.

  • Practice at open mic events, where little is at stake.

  • If you're reading prose, consider memorizing a short piece or two -- you'll stand out from prose readers. (For poetry and story slams, you'll often need to memorize your piece.)

  • Record video at one of your readings and post individual stories on Youtube or your Web site. This is useful when you're pitching yourself as a reader for a larger event. (Some readings and slams video tape and then offer to sell you the recording.)

  • Stage fright: Yes, you will have it. The day of a big performance, I often develop flu-like symptoms, including aches, pains, sore throat, nausea, itchy skin, hallucinations. Then, I wonder why I keep doing this to myself. But once I start performing, it all disappears.

  • You will bomb occasionally. Maybe the audience is small, too politically correct, or too politically incorrect. (I've read pieces to an audience one week who loved and the same piece to an indifferent audience the next. That's show biz.)

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(This piece went over well at this Cambridge story slam in the video above, but bombed in front of a younger audience who found the title, "The Day I Almost Became Gay" offensive. (Before performing the piece for the first time, I ran it by a gay friend who said it was fine. Did I mention that's show biz?))

6) Where to Find Venues at Which to Read

Local options:

  • Massmouth (story telling: you'll need to memorize your piece. Check the site for locations and times.)

  • Lizard Lounge in Cambridge (poetry slam and open mic; Sunday nights starting at 8:00.)

  • Grub Street Reading Series (Open mic, next event is tomorrow, 8/30; sign up at 6:45. At Grub Street HQ.)

  • Dire Literary Series (prose, poetry, and story telling; held first Friday of the month in Cambridge)

Other options:

  • OpenMikes.Org


  • Walk into a small bookstore and offer to read. If person you're addressing is behind a computer, direct them to your Web site -- you did post a video of you reading at an open mic, right?

  • Other venues: public libraries (they often pay), adult education centers (they also pay), art festivals, folk music open mics (they often allow a story-teller to tell a short story. You are a story-teller, right?)

Other Readings by Randy Ross:

"Why I'm Over Forty and Still Single" Includes the fish theory, the valency theory, and other medical excuses.

"The Online Date that Went a Little Too Well" Content warning for adult language, adult situations, more adult language, and more adult situations. (Notice the children's finger paintings in the background while I'm reading.)

(This post originally published on Randy's blog, The Loneliest Planet.)


About the Author See other articles by Randy Ross
by Randy Ross

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