Leigh Stein’s Craft Talk: “How to Read Your Work Aloud”

How to Read Your Work Aloud
by Leigh Stein

Today is August 9, 2012, and so far this year I have done 37 public readings, in 14 cities around the country. Giving public readings is an important part of promoting a new book (and I have had two this year), but I think learning to read your work aloud is important for all writers, whether your goal is to someday wow an audience of three hundred, or just impress the cat curled up next to your writing desk.

Why read aloud?

When I write a poem, I don’t know it is finished until after I have read it aloud to myself. I’m listening for sound and cadence, for whether I’ve gotten the line breaks right. If I trip over the words while I’m reading, that usually means there’s something rhythmically off. I’ll go back to that line and revise.

With prose, reading your work aloud is a great opportunity to catch typos. Your mouth is slower than your mind, so as you form the words, your brain is forced to slow down and pay attention. Pretend you’re the star of your own audio book recording, and pay attention to pacing. Did you jump from scene to scene too quickly? Or is that paragraph describing the light in the trees out the window insufferably long? Reading aloud allows you to become a
new audience for your own work.

Why read aloud in public?

For new writers, readings offer a tremendous opportunity to form community with other writers. I could say “network,” but that can be a dirty word. You’re not going to a reading to get your book published, but you are going to a reading to meet other writers, see what they’re working on, and get new ideas for how to bring your work to a wider audience. Look for readings at local libraries, cafes, bookstores, and bars. Going to hear Jonathan Franzen read in an auditorium might be awesome, but you aren’t going to get to talk his ear off later about how he got his agent.

Stay local, see what’s in your community, and befriend other writers. I can’t overemphasize what an important role readings have played in the development of my career (and personal life!). I did a reading once with an NYU professor, and his students in the audience invited me to submit work to Washington Square. I was accepted. I met my friend Lily at a reading almost four years ago, and we started an Anna Karenina book club together. At a Tao Lin reading in 2008, I met my friend Catherine, who later introduced me to the publisher who would take my first novel.

I’ll close with some tips and suggestions for reading your work in public. Before I became a writer, I had years of theater training, and so many of the “rules” of performance apply here, as you translate your work from the page to our ears.

1. Respect your audience

Your audience wants to be entertained. They are hungry for stories. Don’t read something that only works “on the page.” We can’t see the page. Don’t explain to us the experimental convention you’ve come up with to represent the sound of birds alphabetically. We want to listen. Tell us a story. Don’t bring props and multiple handouts and then lose them and spend the first five minutes on stage trying to figure out if you left them at the bar.

Be organized. Don’t tell anecdotes that are longer than the piece you’re about to read. Don’t read a work-in-progress unless you’re sure it’s very, very good. You don’t need to say, “This is a work in progress,” as if that’s your Get Out of Jail Free card, and we’ll all forgive you if it isn’t very good. Read your best work. Pretend you’re on the radio, and all we have is your voice. Don’t get up onstage and send a text message before you read. I am serious. Don’t read from your iPhone unless you have just come from a fire in which your
reading material was burned.

2. Respect your host

If the host says “read for ten minutes,” then practice. Time yourself. It isn’t cool to show up and read for 18 minutes. Wear a watch. Telling anecdotes “counts” towards your time limit. It’s nice to say thank you, but you don’t need to grovel. Most reading series hosts have an order in mind, and if they ask you to read first, say “No problem.” If they ask you to read last, say “No problem.” Only if they ask you if you have an order preference do you get to say so. If you are reading at a bookstore, it’s always nice to send a Thank You card the next day. (And sometimes the bookstore will write back!)

3. Respect the other readers

Even if you went first, don’t leave before the reading is over. Please. Unless it is a four-hour poetry reading, in which case you totally have my permission, because I have left those at half-time, too. Be nice. Treat everyone as your equal. You’re all here together for this moment, and who knows when, or under what circumstances, you’ll all meet again.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, which New York Magazine called “a masterwork of the post-collegiate babysitting genre,” and a book of poems, Dispatch From the Future, which was a Publishers Weekly pick for Best Summer Books of 2012. Her non-fiction has appeared in Allure and Bookforum. Follow her @rhymeswithbee