HOW TO: pick your ceremony readings and decide who’ll read them

The right words will touch the hearts of everyone at your ceremony, so it’s important to get it right – celebrant Jane Patmore shares her wisdom

Having a guest read at your wedding is a lovely way to pick up on the meaning of love and marriage and the way you feel about each other. Finding the right poems, quotations or passages that capture a particular moment or feeling adds to the personal feel of a wedding, and helps to share our emotions.

However, couples often tell me that finding the right readings is one of the most overwhelming parts of preparing for their ceremony. There is simply so much choice: traditional poetry; readings from the Bible; Shakespeare; a piece of prose; the lyrics of a favourite song; the speech from a favourite film; contemporary writers; sacred texts; pieces written specially for the occasion – the list seems endless. The internet is an amazing resource, but it often throws up far too much material, and instead of finding inspiration we can feel swamped.

Depending on the type of ceremony you are having, there may be limits on what is permitted. If you are having a religious service, your minister, pastor, priest or celebrant will probably have some suggestions to guide you. Some civil ceremonies and some humanist ceremonies will not permit any religious readings at all, so your choice will be from the vast range of secular writings. 

Whether you are searching for something thoughtful, romantic, funny, modern or traditional, look for inspiration in lots of different places. You may want to browse through the library of wedding readings found online, or buy a specialist book which contains lots of examples and options, but don’t feel limited or constrained by published selections. Seek inspiration everywhere – watching movies, listening to music, reading books. 

My first suggestion when couples start to look for wedding readings is to enlist the help of those who know you best. Perhaps your parents recall the readings they had at their wedding; perhaps a grandmother has a book of poetry that she used to read to you when you were a child; maybe a friend will remind you about a favourite author.

Even chatting about the subject with friends may give you some inspiration for where to look.

Don’t worry if the reading you have chosen is the same one as a friend used in their ceremony, and don’t be concerned that your guests will have heard it all before. There’s a reason popular readings become popular – because they’re appropriate, and the words and sentiments are beautiful.

Naturally, song lyrics in particular have a lot of repetition in them – the chorus or a particular line or phrase can be used several times at the end of each verse – so you may want to make some modifications to how much of it you use. This leads to a big question: do you need to stick with the original version of a poem or text, or can you amend or paraphrase it so that the words suit you and your situation better?

My personal opinion on this is that if you are using a religious passage or quoting from a well-known piece of writing, such as Shakespeare or Robert Burns, you should stick with the original. However, adjusting a well-known piece of writing can work well if you make it clear that this is what is being done.

Most ceremonies typically have between one and three readings. These can be spaced out: one linked to the words of welcome and opening to help set the tone of the ceremony; one linked to the story of the couple’s relationship, to reflect something personal or illustrate an important aspect of their love. You might also like to include a reading at the closing point of the ceremony – something that offers good wishes for the couple’s future, or which is a blessing.

Ultimately, there are no hard and fast rules about the number of readings – and, of course, you don’t need to include any.

A big consideration is who you’ll choose to speak on the day. It can be lovely to have someone read who is not already involved in the ceremony – maybe a family member, or friend who couldn’t be a bridesmaid, or perhaps making sure that there is someone from both families involved.

However, it is important to make sure the person you ask is comfortable and confident. It’s disappointing to have spent ages choosing a reading carefully and thoughtfully, only to find that the speaker is very quiet or nervous and that no one can hear them properly, or to have chosen something light-hearted  and have it read in a dreary, monotonous tone.

Your venue may have a sound system and microphones which make it easier for your readers to be heard; be sure to check this out before-hand. If you’re having a video made, your film-maker may ask that readers use a small microphone clipped to their lapel so that the words can be captured on the soundtrack.

On a very practical note, think about what your readers are going to read from. The words printed on card is always going to look smarter than someone pulling a piece of folded-up paper from their pocket. And on a personal note, I hate to rely on technology. It can quite spoil the moment for a couple if their reader comes up and then spends several minutes scrolling through their phone to locate the words, or finds that they need an internet connection in order to pull up the text.

As a celebrant, I ask for a copy of the readings, which I always have with me as part of my ceremony booklet. This means that I can make the right kind of introduction, so I’m not making a deadly serious introduction to a light-hearted humorous piece, or vice versa. It also means that if a reader has forgotten their card or notes (and you’d be surprised by how often that happens), I can easily provide them with a copy.

You may want to have a copy of your reading on your order of service, please be careful about copyright, though. Some commercial printers will not print a reading on an order of service if you do not have copyright permission.

This is an edited extract taken from Celebrate Your Love: How to create a unique, modern and personalised wedding ceremony by Jane Patmore, £14.99, Amazon. The book is an indispensable guide to planning the perfect ceremony with the music, readings and vows that truly represent you.