Tips for Writing a Poem

As the poetry editor for Punchnel’s, I see a lot of poetry submissions every week. Some of them are really good. Some of them are less good. But the difference between a good poem and a less-good poem isn’t the mystery so many people think it is.

Sure, that something-extra in a good poem is hard to explain and teach. But the following guidelines for how to write–and not write–a poem help take a lot of the guess-work out of the process and help writers avoid some common mistakes that editors see all the time.

So, whether you’re writing your very first poem or you’re writing your 3,467th, consider the following tips (that I didn’t personally write). They’re something we’ve shared with our student writers in the past, but that we think every poet should periodically revisit.

Tips for Poets on How to Write and Not Write a Poem

1. Common concerns: Shifts in tenses that shouldn’t happen (from past to present, etc. within the same scene); inverting your phrasing to fit a poem’s rhyme scheme (don’t worry about rhyme right now, focus on content); a general lack of concrete details (show us, bring the scenes and characters alive in a sensual way); a lack of leap in metaphors and similes (do something fresh and amazing with them, not the first thing that comes to mind); watch your spelling and punctuation.

2. Try to avoid all adverbs and excessive adjectives whenever possible. Don’t use several descriptive words prior to a noun. The reader won’t stay with you. Example: “The awkwardly lettered, hand built, black and white lunch menu sign hung over the counter.” Instead, try: “The black and white lunch menu sign hung above the counter. Long ago, someone built and lettered it with awkward hands.”

3. Avoid passive verbs: No need to say they “are running” or “were running” just say “they ran” or “they run.” People can’t “are” or “were.” Don’t deflate your verbs.

4. Let verbs do the majority of the image work. Pick active verbs that don’t require adverbs. No need to write “she said loudly” when you could write “she screamed.”

5. Avoid using big words when a smaller word will do. If you have to look a word up in a thesaurus or dictionary don’t use it. Use the one you know. Even a slightly misused big word can sound pretentious and undermine an otherwise fine piece of writing. Always be cautious of the connotations certain words carry with them.

6. Avoid doubling. There’s no need for saying the same thing twice – especially back to back in a poem. Example: “He was funny, hilarious, the kind of person who made you laugh all of the time.” Pick the best and stick with it. We get the idea with “he was hilarious.”

7. Be careful introducing a first-person “I” speaker or second-person “you” auditor late in the poem. This can be jarring and make us wonder where the speaker came from or who the speaker is suddenly speaking to besides us.

8. Avoid clichés or any phrases, similes or metaphors that are too easy or are drawn from the pool of everyday speech. A good test: If you’ve heard it on TV, in a movie or read it in a newspaper story, it is probably a cliché. Nothing takes the power out of a poem quicker than a cliché. Many sheep-like people find clichés comforting, just as they enjoy laugh tracks and predictable happy-ending story lines on bad television sitcoms. That doesn’t make clichés valuable or make it right to pander to the laziness of readers who only want the safe and familiar because they are afraid to experience anything new.

9. While emotion-driven lyrical poems can survive in the realm of the abstract, narrative poems need details. Like any good story, the reader should have a good sense of who the main characters are, where and when the story is set the setting is, what is happening in the story and how and why the characters are affected by the situation or conflict, the rising action, the climax and the resolution of the story (if there is a resolution). People often overlook the why of the story.

10. Avoid overusing the “watermelon of desire” structure too common in poetry. It usually contributes to clutter and gets predictably “poetic”. Example: “I walked past a building of red brick.” Why not: “I walked past a red brick building”? The second even sounds better musically if you read it out loud.

11. Write in a real voice not a poetspeak of archaic words no longer used in real speech. Typical “poetic” words to avoid include: “alas,” “perchance,” “amongst,” “shall” and the rest of that Elizabethan ilk.

12. Title every poem or story. Titles can work to introduce a subject, provide background information, set a mood, or create mystery. Don’t give too much away in the title and avoid using the best or final line of the poem as the title.

13. Avoid using CAPS, funny fonts, boldface or excessive punctuation !!! to indicate the impact of a statement in a poem. Let the words say it. This isn’t a junk-mail ad, this is a poem. If you need to add emphasis, you are using the wrong words. Or, maybe you just need to trust the intelligence of the reader. Italics, by the way, designate a spoken line in a poem – a quote or sound that comes from a voice other than the speakers. Quotation marks can be used for this too in poetry. But italics rarely indicate emphasis in poetry.

14. Read to learn. When you look at any kind of writing and “don’t get it,” assume that the writing isn’t at fault. Assume you need to learn the purpose of the writing and try to understand what is going on. We need to be open to new things and we need to be able to learn from writing and other art foreign to our experience so far. There is no other way to grow as a creative thinker. We should be absorbing a lot from what we read in our books. But we should also be noticing what techniques the writers are using as we read.

15. Left justify all poems. Poems are read left to right and may move from the left-hand margin. But the scoring of the poem depends on an understanding of the left margin as the place where the poem starts. When reading a poem aloud or inside your mind, the voice pauses slightly at line-ends (about as long as a period in a sentence) as if acknowledging the slight muscular movement of the eye in shifting back to the left margin for the next line. If the next line starts halfway back to the left margin, the pause is shorter, and so on. The element of line gives us a variation of pauses. But linebreaks always indicate a pause. Don’t read through them. Linebreaks may coincide with grammatical or syntactical units. This reinforces their regularity and emphasizes the normal speech pauses. Linebreaks also may occur between grammatical or syntactical units, creating pauses and introducing unexpected emphases. White space can indicate pauses. If white space entirely surrounds a word or phase or line, then that portion of the poem obviously takes special emphasis. The last word on a line always gets attention; that’s where your eye stops before it returns to the beginning of the next line. You also attend to the first word in a line. Some people expect that short-lined free verse must be speedier than long lines, but that’s not usually the case. Short lines invite pauses at the ends of the lines, and the fewer words in each line necessarily receive more prominence than the many words in long lines. Enjambment may quicken the pace of end-stopping – but not always.

Quick revision tips:
– Try writing it backwards, line by line or sentence by sentence.
– Read it aloud into a tape recorder and listen.
– Ask every word what it is accomplishing, if it really needs to be there.
– Examine the start and end of each story. Are you writing your way in and writing your way out?
– Don’t worry about the original intent or assignment, revise for the best result.

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