Behind The Scenes

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:

  1. Avoid cliché, platitudes, common turns of phrase, meaningless statements or dead language. 
  2. Don’t use the same word twice in a single line (including ‘the’, ‘to’ etc.).
  3. Avoid using words with the same prefix or postfix (i.e. ending with ’ing’ or ‘ly’) in the same line.
  4. Do not repeat unusual or unique words more than once in a poem; unless there is a good reason. Reach for the thesaurus!
  5. 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).
  6. Never rhyme two lines using the same word (unless it’s the word ‘again’, which is totally fine – I like doing that).
  7. Be careful to avoid accidental shifts in tense and subject/relationship (i.e. the switch from ‘she’ to ‘you’ etc.).
  8. 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…
  9. Avoid using the word ‘just’ unless it’s essential.
  10. Never use the word ‘amazing’ in poems or life, generally.
  11. End sentences with a punch, not a particle.
  12. Keep editing your lines until each one contains the fewest words required to make its point.
  13. 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”).
  14. 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]. 
  15. 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. 
  16. 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.

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