Recently, I was asked to review/edit a poetry book. The process got me thinking (for the first time) about how I construct my poems; how I write the lines and how I choose my words. I’d never thought about it before. To me it’s all instinctive and quietly self-learnt. I started making a list of the internal rules I have somehow collected and now apply to what I’m writing.
I’m not saying this is a definitive list and the ‘rules’ are more of a set of guidelines (which I often bend or break). I am NOT saying other people should apply my rules to their own work (the world would be a very boring place if we all wrote the same way). I wanted to share them to see what people make of them and I’d love to know what you’d add/remove or the rules by which you write – if you even have any?
I reserve the right to change or update them at any time. Some are obvious and some are slightly harder to explain. I have probably omitted some critical ones.
My personal rules for writing:
- Avoid cliché, platitudes, common turns of phrase, meaningless statements or dead language.
- Don’t use the same word twice in a single line (including ‘the’, ‘to’ etc.).
- Avoid using words with the same prefix or postfix (i.e. ending with ’ing’ or ‘ly’) in the same line.
- Do not repeat unusual or unique words more than once in a poem; unless there is a good reason. Reach for the thesaurus!
- Likewise; avoid repeating descriptive words, names, times of day, etc. in a single poem (i.e. avoid using the word ‘heart’ or ‘moon’ or ‘dawn’ twice).
- Never rhyme two lines using the same word (unless it’s the word ‘again’, which is totally fine – I like doing that).
- Be careful to avoid accidental shifts in tense and subject/relationship (i.e. the switch from ‘she’ to ‘you’ etc.).
- Try to be scientifically accurate; if talking about scientific/natural process or physiology get that stuff right. In space; no one can hear you scream…
- Avoid using the word ‘just’ unless it’s essential.
- Never use the word ‘amazing’ in poems or life, generally.
- End sentences with a punch, not a particle.
- Keep editing your lines until each one contains the fewest words required to make its point.
- Be authoritative; say how things are – not how they ‘might be’ or ‘feel like’ (e.g. rather than “my heart feels like it could break” say “my heart could break” or better still “my heart breaks”).
- Don’t use jargon, slang, abbreviations and avoid brand names or referencing politicians / celebrities by name [unless you don’t mind your poem becoming quickly dated: which you might not].
- Don’t reference modern technology, mobile phones, social media etc. etc. unless the poem is dealing with those things as its theme. Keep it timeless.
- Try to come up with a title which is both memorable and which adds something to the words that follow.
Last updated: 26th May 2020.