Do you ever find yourself suddenly struck by a bolt of inspiration while sipping your morning coffee, taking the subway to work, or watching your children play in the backyard?
You see or feel something that you’d love to put into words, but when you reach for a pen, you’re suddenly at a loss.
Poetry can be a wonderful outlet for expressing your feelings and putting those experiences into words.
How to Write a Poem
Unfortunately, just the thought of sitting down and writing a poem can be extremely intimidating, which is why so few of us actually try it.
We let those little everyday moments of inspiration float away, never giving them a chance to become words that live forever.
But once you learn a few poetry basics, you’ll find that with practice anyone can be a poet.
It probably won’t be easy at first, and you might not even like much of what you write—but even at the very worst, you’ll have an excellent base from which to build your skills.
How Do You Structure a Poem?
There are many different types of poems, each with their own unique rules and features. Some forms—such as sonnets, villanelles, and haikus—have very specific formats and rhyme schemes.
While these rules provide structure, they can also make things more complicated for writers who still haven’t learned to master meter or rhyme. That’s why it is often recommended that beginners start with free verse, which doesn’t have any rules at all.
With free verse, poets are free to decide the rhyme scheme (if they want one at all), rhythm, meter, and length. This is also the style used in most contemporary poetry.
If you do choose to rhyme, never force it. Unless you’re writing a nursery rhyme or children’s song, you probably don’t want a sing-song poem that sounds more juvenile than thought-provoking.
10 Tips for Writing a Poem
While there’s no perfect formula for a great poem, these nine steps can help you get off to a great start.
1. Find Inspiration in the Ordinary
If you want to try your hand at poetry but aren’t quite sure what to write about, don’t fret.
As with any kind of creative writing, you don’t have to look much farther than the places, things, and people in your everyday life to find inspiration.
You can write about your backyard, a day at the beach, a memory of your mom—your options are endless, and there are no “wrong” subjects.
The important thing is that your topic is accessible to the reader. Find something universal—something that anyone can relate to or understand—and put a creative spin on it.
2. Know Your Goal
Ask yourself why you’re writing a poem. Is it to capture a special moment forever? To describe the beauty of nature, or the essence of a person? Do you want to make readers laugh, cry, think, or feel inspired?
Determine a clear purpose before you start your first draft. Keep your goal in mind as you compose each verse—every line you write should serve the poem’s main purpose.
Having a clear goal will also help you determine which images and literary devices might best suit your poem.
3. Develop Strong Images
You’ve probably heard about the importance of showing, rather than telling, in literature. The same idea applies to poetry.
Rather than telling your readers about a moment or experience, show them by using detailed imagery. Make them feel as if they’ve just entered the scene with you and can see everything themselves.
Use vivid descriptors to appeal to readers’ senses. Don’t go straight for the big picture or general feeling that you want to convey—describe how something feels, smells, sounds, or tastes to help you get there.
Also keep in mind that with each word comes an opportunity to add meaning. You can study some of the most common symbols in literature to choose images that will bring added depth to your poem.
4. Use Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are two ways to create imagery in your writing without simply listing adjectives.
Metaphors can be quite poetic themselves, as they directly compare two unlike objects.
The expression “love is a battlefield” is an example of a metaphor.
However, if we were to say “love is like a battlefield,” we would be dealing with a simile, which compares two objects using words like “like” or “as.”
Both are handy tools that can help your poems draw comparisons and make suggestions for added depth.
5. Avoid Clichés
A cliché is a phrase or thought that is overused and fails to contribute an original thought.
While similes and metaphors are incredibly useful tools, some have also become clichés.
Without her glasses, Velma was as blind as a bat.
When he was hungry, David could eat like a pig.
But clichés aren’t just limited to overused phrases. You might have noticed that many films or books repeat the same tired themes that you’ve already seen dozens of times. Try not to do the same in your poetry.
To avoid clichés, write about what only you can. Brainstorm a list of ideas based on your experiences, or topics that you feel very strongly about.
If you can put your feelings or experiences into words without reusing cookie cutter phrases or themes, that’s what you should write about.
6. Use Concrete Language
Concrete words describe things we can feel or sense, whereas abstract language describes concepts or feelings.
The problem with abstract language is that many concepts or feelings carry different meanings for different people.
For example, the sentence “Sarah was happy that it was a beautiful day” contains abstract words.
What is a beautiful day? If asked individually, each one of us would probably offer a different definition.
A more concrete example would be:
Sarah’s heart was warm with joy because after a long winter, the sun was finally shining bright, birds were signing, and a gentle sea breeze caressed her face.
From the sentence above, readers will get a much clearer idea of what Sarah’s “beautiful day” looks like. Thanks to the sensory details, they can also imagine what she sees, hears, and feels.
7. Aim for Minimalism
In poetry, every word should be essential. Once you’ve written a first draft, go back and cut out any words or phrases that don’t contribute to your original goal.
If you can do away with a word without losing any of the emotion or meaning behind your poem, then that word isn’t necessary.
We’ve mentioned that imagery and vivid language are essential for good poetry—but sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with fancy adjectives.
Strip your poem down to the words that are absolutely essential. Being descriptive doesn’t mean adding in discardable fluff.
Once you have a first draft, put your poem aside for a few days before coming back to it.
(If you spend days scrutinizing the same few sentences over and over, you might miss something important, or lose sight of the big picture.)
With fresh eyes, look for anything that could be confusing or hard to follow for your readers. Remember that they aren’t mind readers, so just because something is clear to you doesn’t mean it will be so self-evident to everyone else.
Try reading your poem aloud to see if it flows the way you intended, or maybe let a friend read it and provide feedback. Give yourself as much time as you need for the revision process—good poetry is something that can’t be rushed.
9. Break the Rules
Very few people stand out enough to make it as a poet (or much else in the art and literature space) by doing what everybody else does. Very few people successfully break out with marketing themselves by following all the basic rules all the time.
Throughout your poetry career, break the rules. Shatter the conventions. Spit in the face of the norms. Go nuts. Most of these experiments will fall flat, but a few could help you make your name. Of course, you first have to know all the rules cold. Otherwise you won’t know which rules to break, and how best to break them.
10. Write Fearlessly
The best poetry says the things people are afraid to say, and explores emotions most of us want to pretend aren’t there.
Your best poetry will come when you tackle topics, experiences, styles, and themes that scare you. That’s true of every kind of writing, but especially true of poetry. It’s how you make that little handful of words so powerful and compelling.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Too many poets never really “go for it” because they fear they’ll miss their shot. Forget that. It’s better to try and fail than to chicken out. Besides, it makes a great story. Or even great inspiration for your next poem.
What Is a Poem Example?
See this excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Preludes for a fantastic example of imagery in a poem:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
To find your inspiration, try this simple writing exercise that will help you take greater notice of your surroundings.
In a journal or any blank space, write down anything your senses are experiencing. Think about ways you can express those details through comparisons (like similes or metaphors).
- From my window, I see…
- I hear…
- I smell…
- I feel…
- I taste…
You might not write a poem about these specific experiences, but the exercise can help you find inspiration in the everyday things around you.
You Can Be a Poet
The art of poetry is more accessible than many of us think—all you need to get started is some inspiration and a pen.
Above all, remember to write things the way you see them. You can also try out some creative writing prompts and see where your imagination leads you.
Have you ever written a poem? Feel free to share your best verses or tips for writing poetry in the comments below!