Last week, I wrote about a New York Literary agent who rejects books based on the first 5 pages. He says 5 pages is all it takes to recognize bad writing. It wasn’t just his thoughts on bad writing that fascinated me, but also the thoughts on good writing.
For example — he says people who write poetry often make the best writers.
It’s not so much the poetry. It’s the way writing poetry makes us think.
Or more — that it’s hard to be a lazy writer when you’re writing poetry.
Most of us are lazy writers…
We get an idea and then vomit out a bunch of words and call it a first draft. Which is fine. That’s what a first draft should be. A brain dump.
Basically, we need to put everything on the page so we can work with it. Because you can’t “build” an essay with stuff that’s not even on the page.
I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so later I can build castles. — Shannon Hale
The problem is that we don’t do enough with it after that.
We correct the typos, maybe clean up a little — and call it done.
Then we say dumb things like we’re just writing from the heart. That’s not writing from the heart. That’s not knowing how to edit.
When you dig a diamond out of the earth, it’s unpolished and covered in dirt. Washing all the dirt off is not the same as polishing the diamond to bring out the glory of the uncut stone.
A polished diamond and a washed diamond are not the same. Likewise, writing. A cleaned up story and an edited story are also not the same.
Fact is, most people write one of two ways.
They are either still trying to please their English teacher, or they’re writing the way they talk. And the latter is better than the former, but neither make for particularly engaging writing. Because most of us don’t speak any more compellingly than we write. We’re not all born speakers, you know?
To top it off, a lot of advice givers say dumb things like “write more” — which just means you keep doing the same things, and the bad habits get stronger.
Most writers have not developed their voice yet, because they don’t even know what voice means…
People love to talk about developing our “voice” as a writer. Pity so many advice-givers don’t know what that means.
Your “voice” as a writer has nothing to do with your personality, or how you talk, or what you like to write about. Your writing voice develops from your your ability to string words together in a way that makes people feel.
You feeling emotional when you write doesn’t mean you’re conveying that emotion, or stirring it in the reader. Your emotions come from the experience. The words you use, and how you use them, are what stir the reader. Or not.
As you learn to use words effectively and concisely, your voice as a writer grows out of that skill.
As Mama used to say, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
We’ve all encountered the ill-sounding sentence, most commonly found in the run-on. Technically, it’s correct, but it just “sounds” wrong. Indeed, what I label sound may also be thought of as “rhythm.” Accomplished poets often make for the best writers… [Noah Lukeman, The First 5 Pages]
How even simple poetry makes you a better writer
Stringing words together isn’t a skill we’re born with. It’s a learn-able skill, and there’s only two ways to learn it. By reading, and by writing.
Doesn’t even matter what you’re writing. It’s as true for advertising copy as it is for journalism and personal essays. You still need to learn how to write.
Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. — David Ogilvy
The point of writing is not to convey what you are feeling, which is hard enough, but to make the reader feel what you want them to feel.
Starting with fewer words is easier…
Which is easier, juggling 2 balls or juggling 10?
Which is easier, minding 5 children or minding 30?
You see what I mean here? Minding things is easier when there are fewer to mind, and words are no different.
When it comes to words, when you have an unlimited number to use, the tendency to ramble is greater. This is why poetry strengthens our writing chops. Because we have fewer words to work with.
Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words — Robert Frost
But what if you hate poetry?
Granted, most poetry is an acquired taste. The literary equivalent of raw oysters, escargot or cilantro. Not everyone’s cup of tea.
Start talking sonnets, couplets or iambic pentameter and a lot of people get that look on their face. You know the one. Thanks, but no thanks.
Telling a writer that poetry will improve their writing isn’t helpful if they hate poetry. So then what?
We widen your definition of poetry, of course!
Because not all poetry is the same.
Some poetry forms are simple enough for children and poetry-haters.
And they’ll still sharpen your writing skills, because they make you look at words in a different way. Selectively.
Because you have so few to work with.
More so, you’ll start to develop that elusive thing that professionals call rhythm. Which is what happens when your word slinging skills improve.
Once you start thinking about how words fit together to make a pleasant sounding poem, even a short one, you can never go back to the way you used to write.
One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions. — Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
12 short and simple poetry forms that will improve your writing skills
These poetry forms are so simple, children can do them. And poetry haters can, too. You might even enjoy some of them.
You’ve probably never heard of most of them. I went hunting for the shortest and most uncommon forms of poetry I could find. So they’re simple to work with. I hope you’ll pick one or two and play with them.
If you do, I’d love to read them. Tag me if you write a poem based on one of these, so I can come read.
Acrostic poetry has many forms, but the simplest is this — the first letter of every line spells out a word. Pick a word, any word, and type it out vertically. Then make a poem about the word. Like so…
Sunshine warming my face
Purple crocuses peeking out
Rain, at last, instead of snow
I am shopping for seeds now;
Nasturtiums and purple carrots
Growing season is here!
I know, the name sounds all fancy, but “cinq” just refers to #5 in French. There are many forms, but the simplest cinquain is counted syllables, in the format 2/4/6/8/2 (ie 2 syllables in the first line, then 4, 6, 8 and 2)
In white and black,
like little tuxedos
See them waddle on orange shoes?
P.S. If you’re not sure what a syllable is, it’s just how words are pronounced. For example, water has 2 syllables. (wa-ter) Inferno has 3. (in-fer-no)
3. Found Poetry
Found poetry is one of the simplest, and possibly most addictive. The first method is to cut a small square out of a newspaper. Then draw a box around the words you want to keep with a fine marker. Black out the rest. Bonus, you get buzzed on the marker before you’re done. lol.
The second method is to grab a magazine and cut some words out of it. Then paste them on contrasting paper. Tada. Found poetry.
4. Free Verse
Free verse is also called vers libre, which is just French for “free verse.” Quite literally, there’s no constraints. No counting syllables. No rhyming unless you want to. It’s just a completely free and open poetry form.
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
[Carl Sandberg, The Fog]
5. Gogyohka (go-gee-yoh-kuh)
Gogyohka was developed by Enta Kusakabe in Japan and translates literally to “five-line poem.” The format is very simple. 5 lines, one short phrase per line. It’s meant to be concise, but free. Just like free verse, but it’s only 5 lines.
What kind of
rose colored cheeks
Hay(na)ku is a very simple poetic form, and one of the newest. It was created in 2003 by poet Eileen Tabios. It’s a 3-line poem with 1 word in the first line, 2 in the second, and 3 in the third. (not syllables, just word count 1/2/3)
Also, multiple hay(na)ku can be chained together to form longer poems.
the cat goes
The Lune is known as American Haiku. Created by poet Robert Kelly, it’s just like Haiku, except it uses 5/3/5 for a total of 13 syllables.
And I hold my breath
The nonet has exactly nine lines. The first line has 9 syllables. Then, one less per line, until the last line. Nice and simple. 9/8/7/6/5/4/3/2/1
A nonet has exactly nine lines
The first line has nine syllables
Then reduce one for each line
Till you come to the last
Just one syllable
It is lovely.
Why not try?
There are many types of Quatrain, mostly with different rhyming schemes, but the simplest is this: Four lines where lines #2 and #4 rhyme.
O, my luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
O, my luvw’a like the melodie
that’s sweetly played in tune
(Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns)
Shadorma is a Spanish 6-line poem using 3-7 syllables per line for a total of 26 syllables. Simple as that. The format is: 3/5/3/3/7/5
bread crumbs to the beach
rain or shine
And those birds, swooping, eating
filled her heart with love.
Tanka is a Japanese poetry form that means “short poem.” It’s exactly like writing a Haiku, except there’s 2 extra lines. The format is 5/7/5/77
river with ice cold water
trickled from snow caps
above frosted evergreens.
A sparkling wonderland.
The tricube is a very new mathematical poem introduced by Phillip Larrea.
It’s very simple — all 3’s. 3 verses, 3 lines per verse, 3 syllables per line.
Like a cube, see?
My crown bears
the deep thorns
burn dark holes
in my mind
where no one
There is a voice that doesn’t use words. Listen. — Rumi
Before You Go…
If you enjoyed this, you’ll also like my Friday emails on writing and marketing. https://lindac.substack.com/