Ten Things Not to Do at a Literary Reading

I’ve attended a lot of literary readings. I’ve noticed that literary events, like any live performance, are bound to have some glitches here and there. I’ve begun to notice some very common glitches, though, in readings by professionals and amateurs alike, and I think they should be avoided.

If you’ve ever been to an open-mic, spoken word or poetry event then you’ll know what I’m talking about, here. If you’ve never been, perhaps you can use this list to explain why you haven’t.

I don’t really love lists, but here goes. If you’re ever behind that open microphone or featured on that stage, please, don’t do any of the following things.

01. Don't Rifle Through Your Papers

If you haven’t decided what to read and in which order, you’re not ready to read, and so you shouldn’t. Have a plan. Stick to it. Small deviations from the plan are probably inevitable at a live event but please don’t make the audience watch you thumb through your ratty notebook while you mutter to yourself about what you might or might not read.

02. Don't Say "I Just Wrote This"

This tip is mostly intended for the performer who wrote something in the moments leading up the performance. At an open mic event, this happens frequently, but it isn’t very polite. Taking notes while someone else is reading is one thing, but don’t completely ignore the other readers, just so you can scratch off something you “just wrote” and then read it immediately, unedited, to a live audience. There’s a way to present new, timely work, but this isn’t it. (an exception to this rule may be required, for example, if yesterday was a major historical event, or if an important life ended or began last night)

03. Don't Mention Your Rehearsal

Whether you did, or did not, remember to rehearse your reading beforehand, just don’t talk about it. Your audience would like to think that you are experienced, or at least competent. If you did rehearse, that’s great but it should be evident by the quality of your reading. If you skipped over a badly-needed rehearsal, then there will be no need to restate the obvious. Maybe you don’t actually need to rehearse. This is unlikely but in any case, just don’t mention rehearsing. Instead, get on with the reading.

04. No Spoilers

Don’t explain each and every piece before you read it. If some initial context is needed, keep it to a minimum, providing only the very essentials. You should let your work speak for itself, as much as possible.

05. Don't Diss Your Own Work

Get this: some writers actually announce to the audience that they don’t care for a work, and then proceed to read it to a live audience! This may seem to the writer like a kind of humility, but it may have a very different effect on the audience. If you don’t even like the work, then, an audience might think, why should anybody else bother to give a damn? Similarly, you shouldn’t mention whether anybody else does or does not like the work, unless it’s a celebrity or a mutually despised tyrant. Just read the work, and allow the audience to make up their own minds in their own way.

06. Don't Speak Too Quickly

Especially where poetry is concerned, it is very important to give the words some room to breathe. If you have a time limit for your reading, it would be better to fill the time well than to fill it completely. Don’t try to cram too much work into your reading. Instead, choose the right number of works and read them slowly.

07. Don't Speak Too Quietly

Before speaking in public, take a deep breath, and imagine that you are speaking to the person who is furthest away from you. That person will appreciate being able to hear you. This rule applies with and without the use of a microphone.

08. Don't Sound Like You're Reading

This one is difficult to define and to avoid, but it is the critical difference between a “reading” and a “performance”. To break this habit, it helps to make some audio recordings. Record yourself speaking naturally, in conversation. Then, record yourself reading a difficult text you have never read before. We’ve all had to suffer through difficult readings like those: at school, political and religious events, meetings at work. It’s not fun,so your performance should not sound like a “difficult” reading. It should sound natural, like conversation.

09. Don't Ignore the Audience

Look up from the page. Look out at the audience. Remember, this is a live event. You may be nervous, and afraid of the audience, but please don’t ignore the audience. They’re people, too, and you just might notice that they’re smiling, thinking about or otherwise responding to your work. It is important to be aware of these things.

10. Don't Forget to Stop Between Pieces

The audience needs some time to move from one idea to the next, and you probably do too. Besides that, if you pause for a moment, you might even get some applause.

This concludes my list of ten things not to do at a literary reading. For some tips on what you should do instead, try Adam Robinson’s article How to Deliver a Poetry Reading. For musicians, there’s a similar list advice for musical performances by Thelonious Monk, in his own handwriting.

If you’ve got anything to add to the list, please post in the comments.