I’m a wordaholic. I love to work with words in as many different ways as possible, so right now, I’m a writing teacher, a freelance editor, and a writer.
For all that I’m hooked on words, though, I’m definitely not is a poet.
I read poetry, but I can’t find the patience to write my own. Still, the poems I’ve read have taught me valuable things that I now apply to my prose (as well as that of my students and authors). The following rules come from poetry, but the principles are universal. Whatever you love to write, they still apply.
Here are the top five writing lessons I’ve learned from poetry:
Know your reader.
Children’s poets taught me that it was possible to really know your reader. This goes beyond identifying your target audience. I’m talking about knowing them on a personal level—understanding what they want, how they see the world, and how they want to be addressed. A.A. Milne and Robert Louis Stevenson both did this for me. Milne’s poems told stories the way I wanted to hear stories when I was small—each was told from a child’s perspective with a childlike respect for that perspective. Stevenson likewise captured childhood with poems like “Bed in Summer.” What child hasn’t bemoaned going to bed in full daylight? Both of these men clearly knew children. Write for the people you know, and get to know the people you write for.
Read out loud.
I started reading out loud when I first memorized poems to recite. What a difference it made in the way I saw those poems! Hearing words aloud adds another dimension—one that shouldn’t be ignored in longer forms of writing. When you read silently, you can pick up some of the sounds and flow, but reading aloud is what really brings the lines to life. Whenever I write, I read tricky spots out loud to make sure the flow is smooth and the structure logical. I encourage my students and authors to do the same with their work. Note what your words sound like when read out loud; you don’t want to ignore an important aspect of your writing.
Pay attention to more than a word’s meaning.
Writing is about the sounds and order of words, not just their literal meanings. I grew up on a lot of great books, but I give poetry partial credit for teaching me that stories are richer when they’re full of strong images and sounds. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes is a poem that did that for me. Not only is the story sweet and sad, the sound of it is like music. It has rich imagery and great repetition of words. It’s not just a poetry thing, either—I’ve found that many of my favorite books are also richly-worded. It’s something I now push for in my prose. Does your writing sound like music? As you focus on meaning, don’t forget to consider sound and order, too.
Blend beautiful and concise.
In being concise, you don’t need to give up beautiful language. Likewise, to write beautiful pieces, you don’t have to give up conciseness. It’s tempting to spruce up a piece with flowery language, but wordiness will quickly become tedious. Poetry demonstrated to me that writers can communicate their points beautifully without using too many words. If you’re having trouble using words in a concise or lovely way, read some poems—let the skill of the poets show you how both can be done at once.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite.
The secret to great writing is the same across genres: revise, revise, revise! In college, I took two poetry classes. I didn’t learn enough to make me a poet, but I did learn enough to embrace rewriting. For several poems, the first draft was missing something. Only when I scrapped all but one line and shaped that one line into a new piece did I discover what I really wanted to say. The same goes for prose. If your first draft isn’t what it needs to be, pick out the parts that are truest to you and toss the rest. There’s no shame in starting over.
I don’t connect with every poem I encounter, but I truly believe that poetry is one of the loveliest forms of writing. Luckily, those of us who write prose don’t have to leave all the lovely words to the poets. Take their tools and make them your own. Then, get out there and make your own writing beautiful!
Earlier in the month, I shared 7 poets who impacted my work. If poetry and specific poems have already made you a stronger writer, I’d love to hear about it. Leave me a comment!
My website is www.elizabethbuege.com, my blog is www.elizabethbuege.com/blog, and my Twitter name is @ekbuege.