Reading poetry can be tough, which means writing poetry can me even more intimidating! But guess what? It doesn’t have to be. That’s why we’ve put together this expert guide on how to write good poetry. In this article, we’re going to cover:
- The definition of a poem
- What makes writing poetry different than writing prose
- The 5 tips for writing poetry that you need to know
- The best resources for writing poems of your own
So whether you’re an aspiring poet or just writing a poem as part of an assignment, we’ve got you covered with these poetry tips.
What Is a Poem?
You probably know a poem when you see one, but you might not have thought about what makes a poem a poem.
There is no single definition of what makes a piece of writing qualify as a poem, but there are a few qualities that most poems share.
For instance, most poems rely heavily on symbolic language and imagery to help the reader understand the poet’s meaning. Poets use comparisons like metaphors and similes to help readers make connections between the poem’s topic and its meaning, and they often paint vivid pictures with words.
Furthermore, many poems have both rhythm and rhyme. That’s not terribly surprising since songs and poems are closely related!
When poets write a poem, they often think about how words combine to create rhymes and beats that help the poem move at a certain pace. If you’ve ever studied iambic pentameter, then you’ve studied a poem’s rhythm. (Sonnets are a great place to learn more about how a poem’s rhyme scheme, too.)
Keep in mind that not all poems use these tools, and they certainly don’t use them all in the same way. But if you’re looking at a piece of writing that uses a combination of symbolism/imagery, rhythm, and/or rhyme, you might have a poem on your hands.
What Makes Writing Poetry Different From Writing Prose?
You’ve probably written a lot more prose than poetry in your life. Prose is defined as writing that has no metrical or rhythmic structure. That’s just a fancy way of saying that prose is writing that is structured in similarly to how we speak.
You’re really familiar with prose writing, even if you’re not aware of it. Your textbooks, your science reports, your history essays, the Harry Potter books, and your diary are all examples of prose writing. While there are lots of styles of prose writing, the thing they all have in common is that they use grammar rules to make the writing read similarly to spoken language.
This means you’ve probably written a lot more prose than poetry over your lifetime. That doesn’t mean you can’t write great poetry! You’ll just have to get used to a different style of writing.
The process of writing good poetry can be pretty different from the process you’d use to write prose like an essay or term paper. Think of it this way: you’re not really trying to explain all of the ins and outs of a topic in a poem. Instead, when you’re writing a poem, you’re trying to get your readers to experience certain emotions. Poets use images and feelings--rather than logical arguments--to help convey their meaning.
Writing good poetry can be tough, but understanding poetic devices can make the process a lot easier!
The 3 Poetic Devices You Need to Write Good Poetry
One of the best ways to get a handle on writing poetry is to understand some of the major devices, or tools, that you can use to put your poem together. While there are literally dozens of poetic devices that poets use to write poetry, here are the three you need to know to get started.
Poetic Device 1: Metaphors
In poetry, metaphors are one of the primary ways that poets use to create imagery, evoke tone, and even convey the poem’s themes and meanings.
But what is a metaphor, exactly? Merriam Webster defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them.” In other words, a metaphor compares two seemingly unlike objects in order to create meaning.
Here are three examples of metaphors to give you a better idea about how they work:
- The assignment was a breeze. This metaphor compares a class assignment to a breeze, which is a gentle wind. While an assignment isn’t literally a gust of air, this comparison shows that the assignment was easy.
- Linda’s temper was a wildfire. This example compares Linda to a wildfire in order to show how dangerous her temper can be.
- Her eyes were a window to her soul. Of course, eyes can’t be a literal window. But they can give you insight into how a person is feeling and what they’re thinking. This metaphor uses the comparison between “eyes” and “a window” to show readers how observing a person can help us better understand who they are.
So why are metaphors an important aspect of how to write good poetry?
Metaphors work by helping us create associations between two things in a figurative, or imaginative, way. Let’s take the example above that covers Linda’s temper. The poet could write, “Linda had a strong temper.” But that doesn’t quite explain how strong Linda’s temper is. Does she get mad, but then get over it quickly? Or is she the type that throws plates when she’s upset?
By comparing Linda’s temper to a “wildfire,” the poet is able to give us a more specific--and more vivid!--picture of Linda when she’s upset. A wildfire is a fire that rages out of control, so we can definitely imagine what Linda is like once she gets mad.
By using a metaphor, the poet makes it pretty clear that we wouldn’t like Linda when she’s angry.
Poetic Device 2: Voice
Do you have a favorite comedian who just always makes you laugh because she comes up with a surprising way pointing things out? Or do you have a friend who says things in a really unique way that sticks with you?
If you’ve experienced one of these things--or something similar!--then you’ve come in contact with someone who has a unique voice.
The idea of voice is an important concept in poetry, too. Voice can be described as all the unique word choices and associations that make a piece of writing identifiable as being from a specific author or having a specific perspective. Poets spend a lot of time creating their voice so that their work stands out from the crowd. They can also use their voice to help shape the topics they write about.
For instance, if a poet has a sarcastic voice, you know right away that they’re going to be tackling topics from a tongue-in-cheek perspective. And their poetry is probably going to be pretty substantially different than someone who has a more romantic voice. But even a sarcastic author may want to write a happy poem every once in a while. And that’s okay: they can just change their voice a little to fit the poem and its subject matter.
Creating a voice for either yourself or a specific poem has a lot to do with the words you choose and the feelings you’re trying to convey. For example, if you want to write with a sad, melancholy voice, you’re probably going to say things like “the clouds wept on the sea” rather than “the sun shone on the daisies”!
Poetic Device 3: Form
When it comes to advice for writing poetry, one of the best tips is to think about your poem’s form. The form of a poem is essentially how a poem looks on the page.
For instance, many poems include line breaks as part of their form, meaning the poem’s lines end before they hit the right margin of the page or the end of a sentence. So instead of reading like a paragraph (like this one), the poem looks something like this:
O’er the ocean billows, heaping
Mountains on the sloping sands,
There are ever wildly sweeping
Shapeless and invisible hands.
— Excerpted from ”Music” by Alice Cary
Ultimately, form can involve several things: how many lines per stanza and how many stanzas a poem has, which lines in a poem (if any) rhyme, whether or not lines are indented from the margin, and whether or not lines repeat.
Things like line breaks and stanzas are part of formal poetic structures. Some poets decide not to use any of these things at all and write in free verse instead. Free verse just means the poem does not follow the rules of any traditional form. The poet is free to invent whatever overall structure she thinks is appropriate for the poem being written. Sometimes these can be individual words on different lines, or poems written in paragraph format.
So how does form affect a poem? With traditional forms, readers have a clear idea of how the poem is structured. It’s a familiar format, which means your biggest task is to fill out the poem’s skeleton with the words and metaphors you come up with. Traditional forms also give readers a general idea of what the poem is going to be about. A sonnet, for example, is usually about love or relationships.
Free verse, on the other hand, can feel a lot more open and unrestrained than a traditional poem that has line breaks and a rhyme scheme. Because free verse can seem like an unusual way to write a poem, it’s a good form for unique, untraditional, or unusual topics.
If you’re just starting out in poetry, you may find it easier to write in a more traditional form. But in the end, the form of a poem is totally up to you!
The 5 Best Tips for Writing Poetry
Now that we’ve discussed what a poem is and how it’s different from prose, how do you go about making one that will work?
The thing about poetry is that there isn’t a single way to make a great poem. However, if you follow the expert tips for writing poetry below, you’ll be well on your way to writing poetry you’re proud of.
Poetry Tip 1: Decide Where to Start
Because poems are often split into chunks--at least, if you’re using a more traditional form!--you might find it helpful to start writing somewhere other than the beginning.
For example, say you have a really pretty image of a sunset that you want to include in your poem. But you’re pretty sure you want to talk about the sunset at the end of the poem, not the beginning. That’s okay! Start writing your poem where the inspiration strikes you. You can always rearrange lines and stanzas later.
You may also choose to start writing a poem by deciding on the poem’s theme or message rather than its content. Maybe you want to write about the joy you experience while running. Instead of worrying about saying the right thing the right way, you can start writing lines and thoughts that help you capture the feeling of running. Then you can start stitching those snippets into a longer poem.
Poetry Tip 2: Pick a Form
Are you going to wing it, and let a structure form on its own? Or are you going to use a traditional form, like a Shakespearean sonnet, that has a very specific structure?
The form you choose will have a pretty significant effect on your poem. For instance, sonnets (which traditionally include a little surprising shift in direction about halfway through called a volta) work really well in telling short stories or conveying memories. But a free verse poem may be better suited for telling a more involved story.
Keep in mind that these are just a few of the poetic forms you can use. If you want to explore different poetic forms, be sure to check out the Academy of American Poets’s web page which has information on many of the most common poetic forms.
Your poems come from your imagination, so don't be afraid to invite readers into your imaginary world.
Poetry Tip 3: Create a Tiny World
When you’re writing poetry, your job is to engage the reader’s senses. You paint pictures for their imagination, encourage them to feel certain emotions, and can even engage their other senses like smell or taste through your descriptions.
Put another way, your poem gives the reader a window into a tiny world you’re creating.
When you’re building your poem-world, think about how all the different elements work together. Are they playing nice or are they creating tension because they don’t belong together? How these elements interact can help create the tone of your poem. For example, if your poem features two dogs sleeping happily together in front of a fireplace, there’s a good chance your reader will feel happy and comfortable (rather than scared, angry, or sad).
You can also think about whether you’re giving the reader all the details they need to imagine your world correctly. For instance, if the scene you’re painting is damp and dark, you’ll want to include descriptive words that help your reader imagine the image you have in your head. The same is true if you have people in your poem. What are they doing? Where are they going? How are they feeling? Including these details can really help your poem come to life.
Poetry Tip 4: Try Out Weird Ideas
One of the reasons poets like to write poetry is that you have the freedom to take risks in a way you don’t in any other written art form.
When it comes to prose writing, the rules of grammar, logic, and structure often dictate what you can do. Take a historian who’s writing a book on George Washington’s life. Can you imagine what would happen if the writer said, “You know what? I’m going to stop writing about George Washington and talk about Elon Musk?” That wouldn’t be a very accurate history book!
Poets, on the other hand, have the freedom to explore ideas and situations that seem random or contradictory. Oftentimes, playing with the bounds of reality can make a poem even better. When you’re writing poetry, don’t be afraid to take risks in terms of your content, ideas, and form. Those risks often pay out!
Poetry Tip 5: Revise
Poems are rarely written in a single sitting. Yes, we know poems are short, so they seem like they’re easy to write. But in actuality, poets spend hours thinking about which words to choose and how to make readers feel different emotions. That’s actually pretty painstaking work. In fact, many poems are revised dozens of times before they’re published.
When you start writing poetry, make sure you give yourself enough time to come back to your poem and make tweaks. It’s usually best to come back to a poem after a few days so you can see it with fresh eyes. Keep all your drafts so you can compare them later, and don’t be afraid to try wildly new approaches when revising.
Don’t think of revising as fixing all the grammatical mistakes you made; rather think about all the ways you can change your poem that can accomplish new things. Try rewriting it in a different form so you can see how effective the forms are for what you’re trying to get across. Try changing the metaphors, try rephrasing some of the lines that feel off to you. Try cutting it so that it’s shorter, or adding stanzas to make it longer.
Poetry is about experimentation, so don’t be afraid to make changes to your poem to see what happens.
Additional Resources for Writing Poetry
When it comes to advice on writing poetry, one of the best poetry tips we have is to encourage you to dive into helpful resources. We’ve put together a list of books, websites, and even email subscriptions that can help you learn more about poetry so you can become an even better poet.
One excellent textbook that will give you an easy-to-understand list of poetic terms, tons of writing prompts, and tips for writing poetry Robert Wallace and Michelle Boisseau’s Writing Poems. They also include examples of poems that can help inspire your own writing. If you’re just getting started out writing poetry, this book is an invaluable resource.
If you want to learn more about the various poetic forms, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms is the book for you. It has in-depth examples of many common (and not-so-common) poetic forms, and it explains the construction of each one. If you’re looking to experiment with the form of your writing, this book is a great pick.
If you want to start following the current trends of contemporary poetry, you can pick up the most recent copy of The Best American Poetry. This is an annual anthology that contains several notable poems published in that year for you to read. Like most things, poetry goes through trends and phases, so flipping through a few of these anthologies will give you an idea of what type of poetry is popular at the moment.
The Poetry Foundation is an organization dedicated to helping make poetry more accessible for everyone. To help with that, they publish hundreds of poems—both contemporary and classic—on their website every year. They also have biographies of famous poets, audio recordings of poems that you can listen to, and expert guides that help readers analyze famous poetry. Whether you’re learning about poetry or trying to write your own, The Poetry Foundation is a fantastic resource for you.
Daily Poetry Emails
One of the best ways to understand poetry is by reading tons and tons of poems. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on poetry books and anthologies, though. There are plenty of organizations that will send poems to your email box for free every day! We’re big fans of the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, but there are dozens of services you can sign up for. If you keep reading poetry, your own writing will get better, too.
When you’re learning to write poetry, the best thing you can do is read lots of poems. Why not check out this list of the world’s most famous sonnets to get you started?
In this article, we talked about a few of the basic poetic devices you’ll need to write good poetry. But there are actually a lot of poetic devices out there! This article explains the 20 must-know poetic devices that can help you in writing good poetry and in analyzing poems that are already written.
Speaking of poetry tips: reading a poem and figuring out its meaning can be pretty tricky sometimes. We’ve put together a step-by-step analysis of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” that can help you better understand how poetry analysis works. Our experts walk you through the poem line by line and show you how to figure out a poem’s meaning on your own.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.