It might seem daunting at first, but writing a poem can be made simpler by breaking down the process into a series of steps. We’ve come up with eight steps that we hope will make writing a little less intimidating. Let’s start at the beginning…
8 Steps to Writing a Poem
1. Write down all your ideas
Getting started is sometimes the hardest part, so it makes sense to start at the source. What do you want to write about? And, why do you want to write about it? The answers to these two questions are going to inform the next steps you take.
Whether you write on the computer or on paper, let your mind drift to your chosen topic and explore all the images related to it. Some of these images might make sense to a potential reader, others might not. You will need to weigh out the proportion of personal information versus the clear contextual details you want to have.
Something else that might help you is looking into poems that tap into similar themes to your own. If you’re interested in writing about death, love, faith, or family, you’re in luck. These are some of the most popular themes with writers from every period and movement. Take a look at our Top Ten Series to find some of the best poems on these topics.
2. Consider the mood
You know what you want to write about, but how do you want to make the reader feel? Some poetry might never be read, but we’re going to operate under the assumption that you want someone else to read and enjoy your work.
The mood is the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem. Do you want your reader to feel happy after finishing the poem? Is the mood dark, dreary and depressing? What do I want my reader to be thinking after they finish my poem? These are all questions you’re going to want to answer.
The mood is created through your use of figurative language, descriptions, and the length of your lines, as well as other aspects. Metaphors and similes are important to consider as they can help your reader understand how you’re feeling about a place, time, or object. If I compare a character’s mind to a “vacant room” and describe their attitude as “placid, and uninterested,” the mood is going to be quite different than if I depicted them as full of energy and powerful intent.
3. Who’s speaking?
Often overlooked, it is important to consider who is speaking when crafting your poem. Are you the speaker? Does this poem come straight from your perspective? And if so, do you want to talk in first person or third person? Examples of personal poetry, emanating from a poet’s own heart and mind, can be found in the Confessional movement (noted for writers such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath). Read more about the confessional poets here.
Alternatively, you have the option of writing about someone else’s experience. Maybe this person is entirely fictional, or maybe you’re taking their personality or life experiences from a real source. If you have a solid understanding of their perspective, this can be a challenging and fruitful way to write. But, its always important to remember that making too many assumptions, or going beyond what you know about someone else can be dangerous territory. Your verse might be read as outlandish, unreasonable, and overwrought rather than engaging and creative.
4. Consider the structure
Structure refers to what the poem is made up of, how it is presented to the reader and the more technical aspects such as line length and rhyme scheme. Once you’ve got the mood and imagery in mind, you should start considering how to arrange your thoughts. Do you want long stanzas? Short? How would either influence your reader’s perception of the text?
For example, if you want to write a poem about depression, you’re are likely going to want to make the lines slow and heavy in an effort to mimic the emotional state you’re interested in. We can also look at it from the opposite side, if you want a poem to be about joy, whimsy, or excitement, it usually makes sense to make the lines light and bouncy.
Other structural aspects to consider are rhyme, rhythm and various poetic techniques, such as alliteration, metaphor and enjambment that might benefit your writing. Dig deep into what structure is, and the various aspects of it here.
5. The first draft
The first draft of your poem is likely not going to be the last, but don’t let future revisions worry you. Now is the time to start arranging your words and considering how line, stanzas, rhythm and rhyme change a reader’s experience. If a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern is really important to you, this is the right time to make sure that your rhymes do rhyme, but that they also make sense.
New writers often go astray when they try to force lines to rhyme and end up distorting their poem’s meaning in the process. Readers will always be able to tell when a line was written a certain way just to make words rhyme. The same can be said for the metrical pattern. Ask yourself, what do I care about more? Writing in perfect iambic pentameter or conveying my meaning clearly? These considerations are liable to change if you’re interested in writing a traditional Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet. In these instances, the form the poem takes becomes just as important as the content itself, at least to some writers.
Just as if your poem was a normal piece of prose, check for spelling errors and any amount of twisted syntax that might be pushing the English language a little too far and making your verse difficult to understand. Poetry is known for its rearrangement of words and creating lines that simply sound “poetic”. But, we’d caution you from becoming too excited and shifting too far away from the “subject, verb, object” patterning of the English language. There are moments in which pushing the syntax can be exciting for a reader, but if every line reads as though you’ve chosen the words at random from a hat, you’re going to have a hard time keeping your reader’s attention.
More often then not when writing poetry the first words, thoughts or phrases you put down are unnecessary. A common rule of thumb is to remove the first lines and last lines from your draft and see if you really needed them. As a writer, it is your job to take the reader somewhere and sometimes that involves a little work on their part. It is okay to start a pome in the middle of a sentence, or in the midst of a conversation. This gives the reader an opportunity to figure out what’s going on and in the process become invested in the outcome. In regards to the mood, now is a good time to consider the impression your words are going to leave on the reader.
Show don’t tell! A very common saying in both the written and visual arts worlds. This phrase encourages you to “show” your reader how they should feel, rather than telling them what they should feel. For example, if you’re describing a person’s emotional reaction you could write “She felt incredibly happy,” but this is an example of “telling” your reader what’s going on. Instead, “show” them by writing something like: “Her face brightened and she couldn’t contain the tears that rolled down her cheeks”. A reader will interpret from this line that the character is happy, without you writing it down explicitly.
Also, check for cliches! It’s easy enough, even for experienced writers, to fall into the trap of overused phrases that will make a reader roll their eyes rather than move them to tears. Some writers will create lists of words to avoid entirely, such as “heart,” “love,” “amazing,” “great,” and “magical”. What cliches bother you? Make sure you’re at least aware of them (by reading lots and lots of poetry!!) to avoid falling into their trap.
7. Get feedback
There are so many different ways that you can get feedback on your poem after you have a solid draft you’re happy with. There are resources online, such as this very website where we can analyze the work you’ve done. Additionally, there are also forums to share your poem with online readers from around the world. You also shouldn’t discount the opinions of those around you. This part of the process can be intimidating. But, if you confront it with an open mind, you’ll find that it’s incredibly important for your development.
Despite your best intentions, a reader might take a look at the work you’ve done, read it, analyze it, think on it and then come away with something completely different than you intended. While it is impossible to control your audience, and it shouldn’t be attempted, this is crucial feedback. Especially, for example, if you wanted a poem’s mood to be contemplative and it came across as amusing.
8. Revise, revise, revise
And so the process goes on! Keep working on your poem. Make adjustments, big and small, and when you’re ready, share it with the world again! It’s important to remember that each poem is going to inform the next. So, if you end up hating your first attempt at writing poetry, it genuinely doesn’t matter. Put it away, throw it in the trash, and start again. Take what you’ve learned and let it expand.