The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading

February 1, 2016 § 55 Comments

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

Woodblock print by Artemio Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican artist

I have a love-hate relationship with readings. On the up side, it’s awesome to get an audience response to work in progress, and it’s great to hear fellow students read at a conference, because we all bust out our best writing and often bring pieces outside our workshop genre.

But we’ve all heard That Person read. You know—the one who burns eleven minutes in a five-minute slot, or the one with the graphic sex scene that has everyone squirming in their seats (the bad kind of squirming), or the whispery reader no-one can hear.

Even with good material, some writers struggle. They may lack experience reading their own work aloud, they’re nervous, or they chose a piece that doesn’t make sense without a larger context. Sometimes a writer just got stuck being #26 on a list of 30 readers.

You don’t have to be That Person. Or even That Writer Who Was Probably Good, What I Could Hear Of It. There are Seven Deadly Sins of public readings, and every single one of them is avoidable.

SLOTH: Do your work, and do it in advance.

Have a specific, timed, chosen piece in a format you can see. If you’re reading from your phone, put it in airplane mode because your mother will call in the middle of your first sentence. If you need reading glasses, have them on your face. Try not to read from your laptop—on most podiums, the lid blocks your upper body, and it’s an old theatre trick that when the audience can see your chest, they feel more emotionally connected to you. Knowing in advance what you’re going to read goes double for workshop leaders—I’ve seen a fair number of teaching writers arrive at the podium with a book full of bookmarks and spend time leafing around. Really? You didn’t respect your students enough to carefully choose the pieces you wanted to read and in what order?

GLUTTONY: Don’t be greedy with your listeners’ time.

Know your time. Come up short. Nothing is more inconsiderate than taking longer than the allotted time—you’re saying “My work is more important than everyone else’s,” and you’re part of a domino effect that ends up screwing the last five readers. Most conferences are tightly scheduled, and even if people are polite enough to stay past the official end to hear the last readers, their brains are already at the bar. If you don’t know what the time limit is (or if there is one), ASK. If there’s no limit, assume it’s five minutes and be the saint who stops at four. This also means you must know how long it takes to read your piece out loud, so do that, with a stopwatch, OUT LOUD. It’s much longer than to read it silently, even mouthing the words.

LECHERY: Just don’t.

The sin of Lechery is often called “Lust.” But it’s possible to lust joyfully, to lust for one’s spouse, even to spend your springtime morris-dancing if that’s what you’re into. Lechery, on the other hand, is lust foisted on the unwilling. And believe me, your audience is unwilling. No explicit sex. No pedophilia. No rape. Detailed violence falls into this category, too. You don’t know who in your audience got raped last week, molested as a child, or is just plain squeamish. Reading graphic content changes the emotional feeling of the room in a way your audience didn’t ask for, and that penalizes the next reader, who now has to start from that mood. (God bless the reader at my most recent conference who cleared the air with a limerick after a particularly gruesome piece, and took that out of his own time.)

GREED: Read one thing, and only one thing.

Don’t think “oh my piece is so short and I get five minutes so I’ll read two.” If your flash fiction is one minute long, revel in the joy of your fellow readers that you’ve made the night run faster (and make the piece a knockout). Poets, you may read two poems if they are short. If so, announce at the beginning that you will be reading two so the audience isn’t surprised when you start up again. It’s better to start with the shorter one, as an appetizer. Keep the transition tight, so you end up with only one round of applause.

ENVY: Yes!

Revel in your envy of other writers’ pieces. Admire those who read well and make mental notes about their delivery—what can you copy? What makes their piece good? Use your admiration as a chance to start conversations by telling another writer you loved their reading (great for shy conference attendees). Clap enthusiastically for every writer as they walk up (if format allows), and again when they finish. It’s scary and hard to read your work in front of a group, and just standing up and doing it is worthy of praise.


Pick a piece you love, that you enjoy reading and are proud to share. If you’re feeling like the writer struggling the most in your workshop (and we all are), this is a chance to show your already-polished work. If you’re choosing between two pieces, pick the shorter one. If you have an option to read something funny, go funny.

WRATH: Contain it.

1) This is not the time for paybacks. At one conference, the workshop leaders stopped attending the student readings after one too many “Well, Distinguished Writer hated this in class, but I’m reading it anyway.” You are showing your public face, so make it one people respect and want to spend time around.

2) Wrath will one day bubble up inside you, the listener. You will be at a reading where someone reads porn. Or violence. Or pedophilia. For eleven minutes. If looks could kill they would be eye-murdered by fifty restless listeners. It’s still your job to maintain a supportive and attentive expression, and yes, to clap when they are (finally!) finished. You may downgrade your clapping from “enthusiastic” to “polite.” You may mentally revise your own work; you may assume an earnest expression and write kill me now in your own journal as if you are taking notes; you may daydream with your eyes open and startle into applause as if you were lost in the world the writer has created. You may even (as I did last week) stand up at an un-hosted reading and volunteer to keep time and make gentle ding sounds to signal each writer’s last fifteen seconds. But you may not eye-roll or mutter. Just note the deadly sins, and resolve never to inflict them on an innocent audience yourself.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 55 Responses to The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading

  • anaatcalin says:

    Interesting article. I never read any one of my pieces out loud, and I doubt I ever will, given that I read too fast. I think it’s better if other people read it. Nevertheless, what hit a chord with me most in this article is what you said about authors picking pieces that don’t make sense without a larger context. I for one try to craft all episodes (it’s what I call them because they’re shorter than chapters) in a way that they can stand alone. It doesn’t always work, of course, but striving for that when writing proved a very good technique to keep the story logical and flowing. Just my two cents, thought I’d share.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      That sounds like a really good way to pick! It’s a challenge as a writer to form scenes and chapters so that they feel “satisfying” but also make the reader want more, and I agree with you that it’s worth doing.

    • haikuandy says:

      I used to read too fast, too. I slowed down.

  • dislit666 says:

    This struck a chord with me as I’ve been at readings where all the mentioned sins were committed. But I’m wondering about the use of “short-bus” here. I have a child with a disability who at age 20 still rides the short bus to school. I might be offended if this is related to that bus. Or possibly it’s a term I’m not familiar with that means something else?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      It might be too glib a reference for a casual piece – here’s where it comes from for me:

      I grew up in a school district where the short bus was for kids with learning challenges including hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and physical challenges. Many of the kids had no visible issues, but they all had a hard time fitting in. I’ve used it here to reflect the feeling of awkwardness many writers get when workshopped, like “I thought this was good but there’s so many things to work on I’ll never be a writer never,” which can start to feel like an innate challenge/innate inferiority rather than a need to further develop craft. I suspect that for many real-world riders of the short bus, the perception of them as less-able reflects the same assumption–that it’s something inherent rather than a need to develop skills, in their case to deal with a world unfitted to their abilities. As I’ve heard an advocate for people with physical disabilities put it, “If steps were four feet high we would all need the ramp.”

      So for me, “short bus” holds the concept, “I feel like I’m inherently bad at this but in fact it’s about developing skills, and I’m not alone on this bus, either.”

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

  • Ruth Carmel says:

    I once saw a spoof of Oliver Twist where the orphan says, apropos of his gruel, “Please, sir, may I have less?” I guess you’re saying: Don’t make your audience feel like that.
    And apropos of the short-bus mention: I liked it, and I’ve got a kid on the short bus.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    THANK YOU. ( Notice the caps.) I have one more thing to add, could we somehow find a cure for the “poets cadence?” I am not sure just how it spreads, almost rash like, from one reader to another–a breathy, slow leak of monotone words, ready for the chloroform. It is epidemic and spreading into prose writing. So scary.

    • Elaine says:

      re. the poets cadence: I totally agree! It makes every poem sound the same. After one particularly soporific reading by 5 poets, all of whom sounded the same, we went to the bar and took turns reading the menu with the “poets cadence”. It was hard to tell the difference. PLEASE POETS, stop taking your beautiful and unique words and making them sound like Everybody Else.

    • I know a novelist who reads excerpts as if they were poetry. (Trust me, the prose isn’t lyric.) It makes me think the writer is narcissistic–Aren’t my words wonderful?

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you a thousand times over. Rules about reading were very clear when I attended The Flight of the Mind so long ago and those rules have stuck with me, most especially: do not go past your time, do not read work you have not revised and carefully edited, do not read past your time, rehearse, do not go past your time . . .

    After his own reading the author we had come to hear invited a friend to read. We did not leave because it seemed rude and I think we all kept thinking it would end soon. The friend read for 45 minutes. It was the most tedious, dreadful, unimaginative drivel! It was so boring that I pulled a book from my bag and began to read. It was so boring that another writer sitting behind me began reading my book over my shoulder.

    I have attended readings that were too long obviously, and readings of unedited work, readings that were painful in their content, and readings that were untidy or mannered or monotone or drunken. No reading has ever been too short.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    In my experience, and these are terrible generalizations, readers do this:
    The poets fumble with their pages and a couple of their books, changing their minds about what to read on the fly. They are reacting to the room and previous readers and since their poems are dense and heady stuff, they chat between pieces the most.

    Nonfiction writers talk the least, especially if they have a journalism background. Their pieces are too long for the slot, but they generally have the good sense to cut them to fit the time without wasting much of it. On the other hand, the worst offender of time I have ever experienced was a nonfiction writer who kept saying, “Well, maybe a bit more . . . ”

    Fiction writers might read long, but the most common problem is that the piece they want to read is too long and they spend far too much time setting it up. If the scene you thought you would read requires more than a couple of sentences to set up, choose something else!

  • Donna Minkowitz says:

    I have to say I disagree about reading content with explicit sex. There’s little enough public literary space to write deeply about sex as it is. Memoir, fiction, and poetry about sex are vital for us to understand what that whole realm of experience actually is, in both the positive and negative ways it affects us.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      At The Flight of the Mind, violence and sexual assault and other distressing topics were often included in evening readings. The audience expected this. Further, the organizer was careful to interleave humor with terror, and probably to help the author edit for more than length.

      A year ago I attended a reading by a local man who had written about his experiences in Vietnam. I knew what I was getting into. I anticipated anger, violence, blood and gore, the whole nine yards. When another man, who was not on the bill as a reader, began talking about “ugly whores” I got up and left until he was done. No trigger for me, I was simply offended.

      In a mixed reading with many writers who are not necessarily or at all known to the audience, Williams’ violence and sex recommendation seems perfectly fair. Readers can put down a book. Attendees can choose to stay home if the reader is sharing a memoir about molestation. Reader likely have more to offer listeners than violence and sexual assault.

      The audience has no way of preparing for rape or incest or butchery when seven or eight people are reading a range of works. That is what Williams seems to be writing about. Is it enough, when your three-minute turn arrives to warn, “Oh, this is about molestation of a five-year-old”?

      I would argue that no, it is not. In a mixed group where the group reading is not specifically addressing violence (of whatever kind), including a shock can be unfair both to listeners who are not prepared to hear it and other readers who must follow.

      On the other hand, I am not a fan of trigger warnings in college classes. For example, a college student should have sense enough to Google Ordinary People and discover it involves depression and suicide, if these are personal triggers.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I think it’s absolutely OK to read explicit sex, explicit violence, and anything else you desire…at our own reading, where our name is on the bill and the audience has a choice whether to attend and hear that material. I don’t think it’s appropriate in the context of a reading consisting of 15-30 authors whose connection to each other is “we’re at the same conference and we’re all expected to attend the readings,” and whose reading experience is limited in terms of being able to gauge the tenor of the room.

      You might be interested in Camryn Moore’s work – she does a series of informal group public readings around the world, usually connected to where she’s performing her one-woman shows about being a sex worker, called Smut Slam. The whole point is to celebrate explicit sex in all its written forms, and includes local authors and performers.

      (I also left a reply to your comment below)

      • Donna Minkowitz says:

        Hmm. It wasn’t quite clear that your piece was only intended as direction for student readings. Also, both you and Jan seem to be conflating writing about sex with “porn,” pieces about rape, pedophilia, and massacres, and in Jan’s case, some man muttering about “ugly whores.” While all but the latter are legitimate kinds of writing, I’m a bit gobsmacked to hear the two of you call for exiling the entire rich panoply of writing about the place of sex in one’s life, even from student memoir readings.

      • Jan Priddy says:

        I sometimes wonder if we are all reading the same text. Donna, I was not “conflating writing about sex with ‘porn,’ ”—I do not see how you made that mistake. No muttering. No “call for exiling the entire rich panoply of writing.”

  • Donna Minkowitz says:

    Also, as someone who has experienced violence, and often writes about violence, I’m troubled at being asked to never share this part of my writing publicly. I’ve recently been at some readings with writers who are veterans who wrote about war, writing which is often (and which should be) graphic. Warnings may sometimes be helpful to shield listeners in advance from content they can’t handle. But just not reading the parts of my work that are about this? No thanks.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      This is absolutely not a request to never share writing about one’s experience with violence publicly – I’m asking that people consider the audience and the situation when choosing material. There’s a big difference between “Veterans Read Their Stories” or “Authors of Books A, B and C” at a theatre or bookstore and a potpourri reading of students where the audience is taking a chance. In the latter situation, it’s still possible to read work that is intense, work that is deeply emotional, work that powerfully works on the feelings of the listeners. But I’ve noticed that when people read explicit sex or explicit violence in those situations, it often reflects having chosen the most “shocking” part of one’s work, which is not always the most powerful.

      I once experienced a reading in which an excellent writer/workshop leader presented a long excerpt about the death of his wife, who was known to many in the room. The two subsequent writers said they would go the next night instead. There was no way to follow that material–the emotional tenor of the room had changed. We were no longer at a reading–we had heard a eulogy. It was beautiful and brave and necessary, but it would have been inappropriate for a student reader to hijack the room in that way. In the hands of a less-skilled writer/reader, the material could have been maudlin. So it’s a delicate line–and I’d argue that the people who know when to cross it are not the ones who need this article.

  • Sammy D. says:

    Great advice, Allison! Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  • aimee nezhukumatathil says:

    “If you’re feeling like the short-bus writer in your workshop…” Wow. ‘Short-bus’ writer? Really?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I’ve unpacked that a bit in a comment above, but it may well be too glib for a casual blog piece. Thanks for mentioning your concern!

      • aimee nezhukumatathil says:

        There is some truly great advice here in this piece–I’m just shocked that in 2016 the use of this phrase wasn’t flagged in an outlet that I so admire. And one I regularly turn to show me examples of shining and dazzling writing. Sorry, but your defense (again, in 2016!) of including a term that is well-known to be derogatory is wobbly at best.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

  • haikuandy says:

    Some advice from someone who reads frequently. When selecting a piece around a specific time slot, a good rule of thumb is 150 words a minute. Got five minutes? 750 words is about right. Your mileage might vary. Also, better to select a whole than try to edit something down.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I love that guideline! And totally makes sense – I usually go for 750 words, and I agree the most successful pieces are self-contained, whether flash, a short chapter, or a scene.

    • Katie Riegel says:

      I had to think hard about taking this reblog down off my own blog, because I did like the humor a lot. Also the points are well-made, though of course we see well-known writers ignoring many of them all the time. I like what ElenaP said below, though–“I can’t in good conscience share this piece with my students due to that one insensitive ‘short-bus’ line…but her own explanation…won’t do my students any good if they read it and immediately make the more widely-felt associations.” I am not trying to demonize the writer here, nor anyone else who laughed at/didn’t mind the term “short-bus.” But my brother had a fraternity friend back in the 80s who went by that term as a nickname, and like my brother’s own high school nickname a few years earlier (“Fag”), it always bothered me. It could be meant in good fun and received that way in their own in-group, but using the word as an insult (even a fake insult) perpetuates the prejudice that exists in our culture.

      We live in a world where it’s not always easy to use language to entertain and to speak precisely about complexity. “Short-bus” feels like a misstep, in an otherwise entertaining and accurate piece. Having screwed up myself when using potentially hurtful language (I still blush about a particular use of the word “gay” over 20 years ago), I sympathize with the feelings this writer will have on having this misstep pointed out. But this is a blog associated with a magazine that’s not afraid to have conversations about the difficult stuff, so maybe it’s an opportunity.

      • Allison K Williams says:

        Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

  • sknicholls says:

    I’m reading at Sleuth Fest and you just helped me decide between a long funny piece and shorter funny piece. the only problem is that the shorter funny piece really has no point without going longer. Hmmm.

  • ElenaP says:

    Some clear, wise points here, so I am disappointed that I can’t in good conscience share this piece with my students due to that one insensitive “short-bus” line. I see that the author has explained her own personal associations with the word in the comments above, but her own explanation, which again, comes from a *singular personal experience*, won’t do my students any good if they read it and immediately make the more widely-felt associations (see episodes of Family Guy/ South Park, etc). Sharing it would be poor mentorship on my part; so again, I’m bummed.

    But quick edit of a description that isn’t doing any crucial work would get this piece more readers!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

    • I’m a little slow in response on this, but I would absolutely concur with Elena and Aimee and others on this. Had it not been for the edit of the slur, “short bus,” I could not have, in good conscience, shared this piece with my students.

    • Diana Rosen says:

      I understand that the short bus reference might be upsetting but it also is a great way to start a conversation in class about writing well without slang, slurs or put-downs or how to write with an awareness of a general audience. I thought it was interesting, though, that one mother of a slow bus child didn’t find it offensive at all. How do we write sensitively without being bland?

  • Matthewgfrank says:

    I concur with Elena P. here. The context of this piece, even with the “unpacking,” can’t (and shouldn’t) support the odd and jarring “short-bus” reference, which only serves to unnervingly break the spell of a “casual” post that I would also otherwise have shared with my students…

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Thanks for the heads-up – I’ll defer to the majority here, and an internet search tells me it’s commonly used as a slur. Edited, and thanks for pointing out a detail that bothered you!

  • wonderful idea I hope people take them to heart.

  • You just had to do that last piece–the eyeroll.

    Got me there.

    I can do the whole “feigned interest” for a long, long time. But just this weekend I did the eyeroll (BEHIND MY HAND! I TRIED TO HIDE IT!) when someone really did go on and on and on about how his viewpoint was just misunderstood and if we would just all listen to him explain again, he’d be beloved…

    I will try harder.

  • Great piece, Allison! Too often, I see time limits NOT enforced. That’s my biggie from this list. I agree with the comment above about curators/event organizers needing to enforce the limits and to not be afraid to (politely) cut someone off. I scream inside sometimes: “There’s a limit, but why aren’t they stopping him/her?!” If, ahead of time (to reader and audience), you set expectations of the proper length and what will happen if the time is exceeded, you won’t be the bad guy for saying “OK, that’s it!”, I promise!

  • Excellent piece. I love giving readings but do very few of them these days (except in my writers’ group!), one, because there are fewer venues than there used to be and, two, because I’m currently committing novel #2 and so far I’ve got very few short scenes that can stand alone without a lot of explanation.

    Probably the most important advice I ever got about reading came from a theater director I worked with. “Prepare your piece as if someone else wrote it,” she said. Work out the phrasing; evoke the feelings and the imagery in your head, the way an actor does. She also advised reading/performing the whole thing every day for a week before the reading. This is a good idea, but I’m lazy and I rarely do it that much.

    The poet Marge Piercy used to say that she never read love poems at a reading because when she did she could see the audience drifting off into their own memories of love, requited, lost, and otherwise.

  • Great article. Thanks, Allison.

  • Joseph Nebus says:

    The one about time and not taking too much of it really applies to every public-speaking event. The few times I’ve given a paper at a conference I’d aimed to run about five minutes short, figuring that the proceedings would be running late by the time I started anyway, and nobody is ever upset that the talk was over before they knew it.

    (If you were the sole speaker for the night, people might feel ripped off if a 50-minute talk comes in at 35, granted. But that’s not the context for this. And 35 minutes of talk plus fifteen minutes chatting with the audience is probably better-liked anyway.)

  • […] “The Seven Deadly Sins of Public Reading” that are listed by Allison Williams over on the Brevity blog, I’d say that Gluttony is the […]

  • Diana Rosen says:

    One very famous poet (obviously) counts beats with her fingers on the lectern…very distracting. I love the suggestions to read as if the poems are written by someone else and get counsel from actors or directors. After all, a poetry reading is a PERFORMANCE, so entertain, make us FEEL, cajole, flirt, charm, CONNECT with us. We want you to. And, no ending sentences with a question mark, okay?

  • […] seven deadly signs of readings–seriously, don’t be a […]

  • Debby Mayer says:

    Just wanted to say thank you, this piece was excellent, in content and delivery. And the comments / discussion further help.

  • Great piece! About 20 years ago, I was a newbie, unpublished writer attending the Antioch Writers’ Workshop. At the end of the week, the members of each “intensive” (genre-specific) session voted who would represent their group at the final participants’ reading. One woman who was chosen by her children’s fiction group was a conservative, religious military wife. She was so proud of this first acknowledgment of her writing that she invited her whole family to her big night. Another young woman, who had been chosen by her adult fiction group, had graphic sex and bad language in her book. It added nothing to the scene she was reading. The children’s fiction winner pointed at her husband, at the kids, then at the door. Her look of pride and accomplishment turned to shame and fury. My take-away: in public readings, just as in pitching our material to a certain publication, we need to consider our audience.

  • […] friends.  Practice, practice and practice some more. See Allison Williams’s great post on the ‘7 Deadly Sins of Public Reading’ for Brevity. (I found this post through the excellent Practicing Writing blog, created by Erika […]

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