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How To Write a Sonnet For Beginners

Updated on January 17, 2012

What You Need To Know

First, let's review the basics. I am going to be addressing the Shakespearean sonnet because it is the most widely known and recognized. There are other types of sonnets, notably, the Italian, or Petrarchan, and the Spenserian. Below is what is needed to write a Shakespearean, or English sonnet:

  1. Contains 14 lines
  2. Rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg
  3. Written in iambic pentameter
  4. Presents a conflict or idea
  5. Has a "turn" after the first half (8 lines).
  6. Resolves the conflict or idea in the last 6 lines.

Iambic Pentameter

You're probably thinking that all of those requirements seem fairly easy, except for #3, "Written in iambic pentameter". And you're right. Iambic pentameter is not the easiest form to write in, however, we need to define it to understand exactly what we're up against.

Iambic is referring to the use of an "iamb", which is a metrical foot of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

Pentameter is a line of verse that contains five metrical feet.

So Iambic Pentameter means a line with five sets of iambs.

Not too difficult once we break it down, right? Let's see an example, I'm going to use The Bard's most famous sonnet, Sonnet 18.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

Let's Dissect It

Next to each line is a letter that corresponds to its rhyme scheme: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG

In each line I italicized the unstressed (or short) syllable and bolded the stressed (or long) syllable.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? A

(Notice how there are FIVE sets of italicized and bold syllables, that's the pentameter. I'll mark it in the following line.)


Thou art1more love2ly and3more tem4perate5: B


Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, A


And summer's lease hath all too short a date: B


Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, C


And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; D


And every fair from fair sometime declines, C


By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; D


But thy eternal summer shall not fade E


Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st; F


Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, E


When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st: F


So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, G


So long lives this and this gives life to thee. G


Discouraged??

"That looks too hard." "I won't be able to do it." "I understand the concept, I just don't think I can write a sonnet."

These were my thoughts before I tried to write my first sonnet. Maybe you're having similar thoughts. Sonnets are not easy to write, that's why the style has slowly gone out of style, and that's why Shakespeare is still being studied for his use of language. But if you can write a sonnet, you automatically deserve accolades. So don't be discouraged, I'll walk you through your sonnet-writing journey.


Getting Started

I've listed easy steps in chronological order of a great way to approach your sonnet:

1. Decide what you want the sonnet to be about.

2. Write a fourteen line poem about this topic.

  • Try to use the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, this will save time in the later editing of your sonnet

3. Now for the revision, if you haven't made the lines follow the rhyme scheme, do so here.

4. Count the amount of syllables in each line, there should be ten.

5. Change the words around to get the unstressed and stressed rhythm of the sonnet

  • I suggest reading a couple of sonnets until you get the internal "ba BUM" feeling of an iamb.

6. Here is where the heavy editing and frustration oft comes in, finding those words to express what you want to say and still adhere to the structure. (This step for me took hours, so don't feel discouraged, this style is really hard.

  • I suggest looking at other sonnets and possibly using words from them that have the iamb you need.
  • If you notice, Shakespeare, the renowned sonneteer, broke up the sound and rhythm of words with apostrophes, you can do so too.
  • If you're stuck, look in the thesaurus to find words that have similar meanings but different sounds and rhythms.

7. Once you think you have a finished sonnet, take a break from it (at this point you may be thinking and talking in iambs), then return to it and make sure that it still works.

8. Have someone else read your sonnet and check for any errors.

9. Post it in the comments so others can see your work. Help show others that it is possible!

Below is a sonnet I wrote that was inspired by Sonnet 18 (shown above). It is a work in progress, as are all forms of art, in my opinion; so if you have any suggestions, please let me know!


Sonnet 18.0

Comparing to a summer’s day seems daft,

My thoughts swirling throughout encephalon;

Other ideas are alike: portraits.

I will compare you to a chilly storm:

Can’t see, I’m blinded through icy windows,

A frigid nip vibrates throughout my soul

And tickles ‘til from inside I feel snow,

It radiates until I’m numb and cold;

But in my heart do I compare thee to

A symphony: soft melodies refrain

Sweet angels sing and harmonize in tune,

A pregnant stop and I do miss my train;

I change my mind and shall compare thee too,

‘Cause summer fervor emanates from you.


Comments

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    • JH Sayyar profile image

      JH Sayyar 12 months ago from Multan

      You have written a beautiful article of Shakespeare's sonnet but sonnet writing is an art that is why every body cannot write sonnets. A sonnet has two part, the first part comprises eight lines is called octave and the other part comprises six lines is called sestet.

      In the first eight lines the idea is kept close and in the nest six lines the idea is exposed to explain the mystery of sonnets.

      I have written 500 sonnets to read my sonnets just write my name in google and find my all sonnets, odes and songs.

    • B Noelle profile image
      Author

      B Noelle 5 years ago

      Max, thank your for your thoughtful response! I haven't been active with Hub Pages for a while now, but like you said I should keep going!! I appreciate all your feedback and understand your hesitancy to comment on the poem. I am currently going to school for poetry and the most important thing my teacher said after saying the workshop is to get constructive criticism was "At the end of the day, it's your poem." And I find that to be so helpful when receiving comments and other people's opinions. Some is valid, others not. At the end of the day my essay, my poem, my short story, my performance, etc., is mine.

    • Max Havlick profile image

      Max Havlick 5 years ago from Villa Park, Illinois

      Ms. Noelle, this is a beautiful essay, extremely well thought out and executed. Not only background info illustrated with full sonnet 18 of Shakespeare, but rare-to-find extensive list of tips for new writers of sonnets, and then to top it off, you "bite the bullet" by presenting your own innovative sonnet 18.0 which is interesting enough to bear re-reading and careful thought. You even sent me to the dictionary to look up "encephalon."

      I might suggest a few changes in the sonnet, but then it would not be yours! Besides, poets are sometimes touchy about such things. I once suggested a few minor changes in a poem about the newly discovered "Ice Man" written by my brother, and he wouldn't speak to me for 6 weeks.

      Before writing this note, I looked for other work by you on sonnets and English language forms, but in vain. Why not? You have such talent, why are you not using it? HubPages is ideal for this kind of thing.

      Please do not be discouraged by lack of response. Essays about poetry are not the world's favorite genre, I know from my own experience, but that does not keep them from being important to the very world that passes them by, and how shall they learn without people like you teaching them? I urge you to write more sonnets and more essays explaining how to read and how to write, what you do and why.

    • B Noelle profile image
      Author

      B Noelle 5 years ago

      Thank you so much!! There's actually a theory that Shakespeare consisted of several people, rather than a singular "Bard" as everyone familiarly acknowledges. I can't be certain, but I like to think of Shakespeare as one amazing person to aspire to be like. And as for your comparison, I am sincerely humbled by it; thank you so much for your praise and positive feedback on my hub!

    • Hunbbel Meer profile image

      Syed Hunbbel Meer 5 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan.

      I am a great fan of Shakespeare and his sonnets. However, I sometimes wonder that how Shakespeare would have written a bundle of 154 sonnets (apart from the ones that were used within the plays!) Haha. He was a genius, and so are you; as you have successfully explained all the sonnet parts. Voted up + Useful + Awesome