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Below are several archived tips from the “Poetry” category. Though some tips have been edited by the current guru, James Gapinski, most are the original creations of past Life Tips gurus.
Simple words say the most
The rule of thumb for writing clean, precise verse is this: the simplest word that still conveys your meaning is best. Anything fluffier is just getting in the way.
Don´t write like you´ve got all the answers
A good poem will avoid being a vehicle for the author’s foregone conclusions about life. Writing is about the discovery process, not about beating readers over the head with your own divine wisdom. Likewise, avoid hifalutin, bombastic-sounding talk that is more words than meaning.
To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Rhyming is a personal choice best made in light of the piece’s needs. Some people simply detest poetry that rhymes, while others don’t recognize free verse. Most of us probably reside somewhere in the middle, respecting verse that is simply good. For myself, a poem is good if its images are evocative, its language strong, and its meaning clear. Whether or not it rhymes is rather a minor consideration.
If you choose to rhyme, keep it light and use it only where you don’t have to force words into rhyme. If you have to sacrifice clean lines of verse to make it rhyme, better to stick with free verse.
Tight, clean verse
Since a poem is a *highly compressed* form of writing, ALL words must be relevant, well-chosen, and evocative. Working words, in other words. Edit your verse for words which, standing alone, say or add nothing. Scan for cliche’s and trite-sounding language. Verbs should be active, adjectives descriptive, and adverbs nearly always absent.
The rule of thumb for editing your verse is this: the simplest word that still conveys your meaning is best. Anything fluffier is just getting in the way.
Poetry resources online
The Poetry Page (Cornell Univ.)
Journal Writing as an Aid
Journal-writing can be a help to isolating your voice. Take note of the issues you find yourself gravitating toward. The ways in which you close off trains of thought. What kind of sensory information you include in your descriptions. Work at exaggerating these things. Pretend that you are a character speaking in the first person about his or her experiences. You will find the pages of your journal filling up. And you might get a new poem out of it.
Isolate and Target Problem Areas
Periodically take stock of areas in your writing that are giving you trouble. Images? Building enough tension in the piece? Language fresh enough? Do exercises that target these areas and help you improve. This "spot training" will do wonders for your writing.
Build on Concrete Detail
Good writing, whatever the form or genre, depends on its use of concrete details and images. A poem will only resonate with the reader if it exists in the realm of the five senses. Bring your poem down from the abstract. When speaking of love, offer details and images from the senses that indicate why your take on the subject is unique.
Emulate, but don´t Imitate
It’s fine to be influenced by the style of writers you admire. But be careful that you are not simply imitating what they do. You must write in your own voice, with your own diction, and about the things that matter to you.
Finding your style
Don’t worry about making your mark, or finding your individual "flair" just yet. Certainly experiment with types of writing, but in the beginning, just focus on the emotion and language involved in producing solid verse. Your individual flair--already in you, I promise--will develop when you have mastered certain basics.
Glossary of Poetic Terms
This glossary is a good refresher and a great resource if you’re just starting out and want to know which techniques and devices are available to you.
Communities & Organizations
Academy of American Poets
Keep a Goals Log
It helps to put goals in writing. Before you go to bed at night, jot down what you hope to accomplish in the next day´s work session. Note whether or not you are meeting these goals. This is helpful, especially if you are working on multiple projects.
Writing to rewrite
When you´re working on a first draft of something, just WRITE. Get the emotions, the character motivations, etc., on paper. Save time-consuming edits for later. We write to rewrite!
A Notebook of the Senses
Carry a small notebook around with you, in which you can write things you observe in the world around you. A kicky line of dialogue on the subway, an unusual animal, a smell in a coffee shop, a dispute between two lovers. The notebook can be your database for sensory material. You can thumb through it when you’re blocked and jump-start your creative juices.
A Writer´s Routine
If you’re going to fully tap your creativity, you need to write within a predictable routine each session. Go with what works and feels natural for YOU. Your friend might work well at 6am, but that’s not true of everybody.
*Try to write at the same time every day
*Minimize distractions--take the phone off the hook, don’t work in site of the fridge or TV.
*Take meal and stretch breaks at pre-set times, if possible.
How is your language? Is it fresh and snappy? Do you make good use of sensory material? Are there any sentences which contain vague, unclear, or unhelpful wording? Are there any inappropriately abstract phrases? Are there any word packages which convey unearned emotion or lack freshness? (Ex., "Something broke inside me," "one thing led to another," "once upon a time," etc.)
Be an observer
Good poetry resides in its author´s observations. Always remember when trying to get an idea across that you are the reader´s eyes and ears on the subject you´re writing about.
Characterization in poetry
Poetry doesn’t always mean you just vent your own pain and suffering on the page. Think also in terms of characterization. Like in fiction, you can write from any point of view you want, and about situations you haven’t experienced. That’s the beauty of writing, you can go where life itself doesn’t even take you.
|Jennifer Mathes, Ph.D.|