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Tips for Writers: How to Write a Poem

Updated on July 29, 2016

From Mind to Page

The words in my head go round and round until they become a poem, essay, or story.
The words in my head go round and round until they become a poem, essay, or story. | Source

Begin with an idea or image.

It all begins with an idea, or perhaps, an image. Creativity is shaping words around the idea or image. The idea will eventually become a poem, an essay, a story. I’ll describe how the process works for me. This process may work for you also.

The focus here is mainly on poetry, but these tips can help with any form of writing.

Incubate the idea.

An idea pops up. It might be a topic or it might be no more than a phrase. I begin to write in my head and the idea becomes more concrete. There may be several ideas in my head at one time. At odd moments during the day—when I’m walking, cooking, taking a shower--they pop up and they start to be developed. Finally, the idea demands that I write it down. Which ever idea is shouting loudest is the one I write.

Write your ideas down. Carry a pad and pen with you so when an idea pops into your mind you can make a note of it. Often ideas will come to you at night because that is when the mind is most relaxed. Keep a pad and pen by your bed. If you get an idea as you are falling asleep or when you wake up with a fragment of a dream in your mind, write it down. Do not think you will remember it. You won’t. Don’t try to write in the dark, You won’t be able to read the scribbles the next day. Keep a small flashlight handy or use one of those pens with a built in flashlight. You could also enter the ideas into your smartphone.

I transfer the ideas to a master list. I review the list every now and then. I am always surprised when I see a great idea on the list that I had forgotten. Now the forgotten idea is back in the forefront of my mind and it may end up being the one shouting the loudest.

The image of the words in rattling around in my head being like the ever-changing patterns of a kaleidoscope popped into my head.

A Kaleidoscope of Words

Words rattle around my head like bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.
Words rattle around my head like bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope. | Source

A Kaleidoscope of Words


Words rattle around in my brain

Like the bits of colored glass inside a kaleidoscope.


Shake them up

And they form beautiful patterns.


Shake them again

And they reform,

A totally different pattern

As beautiful as the one before.


With each shake a pattern is lost.

The words demand that I write them down.


The instinct for self preservation.


Let it flow.

As I begin to write, I just let the words flow. I will free associate. What thoughts or images or memories does the original idea bring forth?

All good writing benefits from the use of imagery—simile, metaphor, the connotations of words. Write down the images that come to you.

Now begin to shape the piece. What comes first? What is next? You may be surprised to find that the writing is going in a very different direction than you intended at first. Go with it. Don’t censor; just write.

At one time, poetry was about adherence to strict form--the number of stanzas, the rhyme scheme, the meter. Modern poetry gives the poet much more freedom. My adage is: “It’s a poem if you say it’s a poem.”

Listen to the poem growing in your mind. The poem will tell you if it wants structure or if it wants freedom. It will tell you if it wants rhyme. It will tell you if it wants enjambment (a line that breaks mid-phrase) or end stop (a line that ends at the end of a phrase or sentence).

Generally speaking, I find rhyme works for light verse—poems for children and humorous poems. Free form or a very structured poem, like a sonnet, work better for more serious topics.

What is A Poem?

A poem...unearths buried treasure.
A poem...unearths buried treasure. | Source

What is a poem?


A poem is rhythm,

and meter,

and sound.


A poem is words,

and image,

and metaphor.


A poem is an idea,

a memory,

a unique way of seeing.


The pen in your hand

will become a dowsing rod

that will begin to tremble

as it hovers over the hidden wellspring

that is your creativity.

Your poem is there, just waiting

to bubble up to the surface.


The pen in your hand

will become a hardy shovel

that unearths a buried treasure,

when you follow the treasure map

that is your intuition.

Your poem is there, just waiting—

hidden riches for you to dig up.


Your poem is there, just waiting

for you to share it with the world.


Edit your writing.

So far you have been using right-brain creativity. Now it is time to apply left-brain reasoning. You have to edit. Is the writing clear and well-organized—does it flow from one thought to the next as smooth as water in a stream? Does it begin with a “grabber”—something that makes the reader want to read more? Is the point of view, the tone, and the style consistent? Have you used exactly the right word to express your meaning?

If you are writing a poem, read it aloud. How do the words sound? How does they rhythm feel? Are alliteration (repetition of initial sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) and consonance (repetition of consonants) working for you or against you? Sometimes, I will find that words are rhyming in a piece where I do not want rhyme—I either remove the rhyme or rewrite the poem using rhyme.

Poems are all about reducing communication to its essence. Often poems will use only sentence fragments for this reason. When you edit a poem, you should look for more economical ways to convey your meaning. You should never use two words where one will do. Look for places where you can use an image instead of explicit words. An image can replace a whole sentence because images have so many associations.

Prose uses full sentences, but the same advice applies. Are you belaboring a point in an essay? Are you explaining too much in a story? Give the reader an opportunity to do a little work. The reader will be more engaged with your writing because of it.

Words! Words! My Precious Words!

Words can flow freely with great force like a waterfall
Words can flow freely with great force like a waterfall | Source

Words Words! My Precious Words!


Words! Words!

My precious words!

I cast them out

like bread upon the waters

in the hopes that a hungry fish

will come to nibble.


Sometimes the words

are like a brook bubbling along;

Like a cresting river

sweeping forward, ever forward;

like a cascading waterfall,

freely flowing with great force.


Sometimes the words

are like a new-born fawn

struggling to unfold his spindly legs;

legs barely strong enough to bear his weight,

but still he stands

and takes a tentative step.


Sometimes the words

are like a string of pearls

knotted one by one on a cord

until the ends, joined together

form a seamless circle

of lustrous illuminating beauty.


Sometimes the words are

dull as tarnished silver.

I must polish them until they glisten

like the fiery white heart of a diamond,

like starlight encased in crystal,

like a lightning bolt captured in a prism. .


I labor to find the right word.

It must have just the right meaning,

just the right connotation,

just the right feeling

to express some subtle emotion,

to create a peerless image.


My words are cast out into the world

like wandering orphans,

seeking a welcoming home.

I share my words,

my precious words;

I hope to feed hungry souls.

The imagery of meaning.

Throughout this essay and with my poems, I have used lots of different images to describe words. This last poem delves into the imagery of meaning.

I used enjambment in this poem to give a feeling of flow.


Comparing Onions and Oranges

A poem can have layers of meaning like an onion.
A poem can have layers of meaning like an onion. | Source

Comparing Onions to Oranges (Enjamed)


Some poems are like onions with

layers and layers of meaning. Peel

back a layer and you find another

layer. Layer after layer.


Some poems are like oranges with

their first layer laid on thick. And,

then the second layer is no more

than a flimsy gauzy membrane.


Onions are sassy, odiferous,

pungently attacking the tongue.

Sauté an onion in oil. Add it to

a sauce, soup, or stew. Watch how

it changes, forfeits its assertiveness,

becomes mellow. Its transformation

subtly flavors everything else in the pot.


Oranges are bright, gaudy; there’s

no mistaking an orange. Bite into

an orange and the sweet juice

squirts into your mouth and dribbles

down your chin. Peel an orange and

fan the segments on a plate. Enjoy

the golden segments one by one.


Onions are introverts, hiding

themselves from view. Onions

whisper, “Tease out my flavor.”


Oranges are extroverts, keeping

no secrets. Oranges boldly

shout, “Here I am.”


Maybe it is better for a poem to be more like an orange than an onion.


Maybe it is sour grapes to think so.

Variations on a theme.

Nothing is random in a poem. Even the placement of a comma is well-thought out. A poem may use enjambment to keep each line with a certain meter .Enjambment is not done randomly either. The word that ends a line in a poem, no matter what form is used, gets extra attention by virtue of that placement. Therefore, the poet must chose the end-line word with care.

As an exercise, I wrote the above poem twice, one with enjambment and once with end-stops. Notice how it changes the feeling of the poem and even its meaning.

I used an end-stop format to give a feeling of no-nonsense directness.


Comparing Onions and Oranges

Some poems are like oranges--there is no mistaking their meaning.
Some poems are like oranges--there is no mistaking their meaning. | Source

Comparing Onions to Oranges (End Stop)


Some poems are like onions.

Peel back a layer.

Find another layer.

Layer after layer.


Some poems are like oranges.

First layer—laid on thick.

Second layer—a thin membrane,

At most.


Onions are sassy on the tongue.

Odiferous and pungent.

Sauté an onion in oil.

Add it to a sauce, soup or stew.

It forfeits its assertiveness.

It becomes mellow.

It subtly flavors everything else in the pot.


Oranges are bright and gaudy.

There’s no mistaking an orange.

Bite into an orange.

Sweet juice squirts into your mouth.

Peel an orange.

Fan the segments on a plate.

Enjoy them one by one.


Onions are introverts.

Onions hide themselves from view.

Onions whisper, “Tease out my flavor.”


Oranges are extroverts.

Oranges are bold and forthright.

Oranges shout, “Here I am.”


Maybe it is better for a poem to be more like an orange than an onion.


Maybe it is sour grapes to think so.

"Writing Down the Bones" is book that you can use to free your creativity.

Please give me your opinion.

Which of the two versions of "Comparing Onions and Oranges" did you like best?

See results

A Guide to Writing Poetry: A short video with some tips to get you started.

If you enjoy poetry...

You might want to take a look at my found poetry blog, News Print Poetry 2012.The discipline of writing a poem a day was very useful to me to improve my poetry writing skills.

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

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