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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Opinion Essay

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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Opinion Essay

Wednesday, July-17-13
By Dave Hood

The opinion essay (also called a commentary)  is a form of creative nonfiction writing. It is part of the category of personal essay, along with the personal narrative essay, the meditative essay, the lyrical essay, and collage essay. As an  aspiring creative writer, you’ll want to share your life stories and  your opinions about events, topics, issues, and people. The opinion essay or commentary allows you to do this. You don’t have to prove your point conclusively, or state the other half of the argument, but you must present a logical argument, which is based on evidence, facts, and reasons. The more evidence you provide for your opinion, the more powerful your argument.

The opinion essay provides you with a way to share your opinion about any topic. For instance: Does God exist? Is capital punishment cruel and unusual punishment? Do you support abortion?  Do you agree with the war on terror? You can read opinion pieces or social commentaries in the newspaper, magazines, periodicals, Websites, and blogs. They often reflect the mood of the public consciousness on topics or issues making news. The opinion essay is intended to “sways hearts and changes minds.”

Many publications include opinion essays, such as newspapers, anthologies, magazines, and the Internet. Consider reading The New Yorker magazine, Time magazine, The Atlantic, and The Walrus.  You can also read less mainstream publications, such as   http://www.Slate.com, Mother Jones, Adbusters, and  Unte Reader. As well, many bestselling books are based on the opinion essay, including “God is Not Great” by the late Christopher Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

In this article, I’ll discuss the opinion essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition of an opinion essay
• How to write an opinion essay (lead, argument, ending)
• Writing style
• Suggestions for writing an opinion essay

Definition of an Opinion Essay

Writing an opinion essay requires that you state your opinion about a topic or issue or person, and then support it with an argument, evidence that supports your opinion. First, you must find a topic to write about. Next, you might have to collect evidence or facts to support your opinion. Then, you can create an outline. Finally, you’ll write the opinion essay.

Finding a Topic or Issue

Creative nonfiction writers often write about social issues, such as gun control, suicide,abortion, depression, addiction, unemployment, global warming, terrorism, war, right to privacy. Another popular topic is politics. Writers often give their opinion on why they support or disapprove a policy or action of the government. Popular culture is another place to unearth a topic, and then share an opinion. Writers share their views on art, film, music, fashion, photography, and more.

You can write an opinion essay about any topic. The most important point to remember is that you are sharing your opinion with readers, who might have a different opinion. And if you are not an expert, you’ll need to do some research before writing the opinion essay. You can read a book, conduct a Google search, visit your library,  immerse yourself in what you are researching. For instance, if you want to write about Buddhism, you could read a few books and engage in the practise of Buddhism, then write about what you have learned from the experience.

As well, you can mine your memory for topics. Many past experiences reveal universal truth. You have an opinion about that time in your life. Perhaps you got married and thought you were going to live happily for the rest of your life. Now you’re separated, divorced, or a widow. What are your memories of the experience? What is your opinion now? Write about them in an opinion essay.

In an opinion essay, your goal is to share your opinion with readers, with the purpose of explaining your view and educating others. To change a person’s mind or at least motivate the person to think of a new perspective, you’ll need to present a good argument. To do this, you must include real life examples, facts, evidence. The stronger your argument, the more apt you are to alter another person’s opinion.

Research

Sometimes, you will have to conduct research, at the library, on the Internet, by interviewing, or by immersion. You might also have to rely on personal experience, including mining your memory, and using your skills of observation. Before writing the opinion essay, determine what information you require. If you don’t understand the topic or issue, do some research. There are several methods of research:

Library. Visit the library, where you can read and take notes from books, magazines, articles, and microfilm.
Internet. Conduct a Google search, the most popular search engine in the world. Use Google to find out what has been written and to discover where you can unearth facts and other evidence to support your argument.
Immersion. Consider immersing yourself in the experience before you write about it. Suppose you’d like to write an opinion about golf, but you’d never played a game. It would be best if you rented some golf clubs, took some lessons, and played a game of golf before writing an opinion essay about why you don’t like golf.
Interview. Some writers like to collect quotes from subject matter experts or eye witnesses.
Observation. Sometimes you can observe the story. For instance, you’re gathering information about the joys of cooking. You could observe a chef in his kitchen, watching how he prepares and cooks the food.
Reading. As a writer, you must continually learn. Read biographies, essays, articles, newspapers. A good creative nonfiction writer is always reading about different people, places, events, experiences, and so forth. Incorporate the memory of facts into your opinion.

Argument

Writing the argument involves sharing facts, evidence, examples, personal experiences, anecdote that support your opinion. The best opinions sway hearts and change minds. You need present facts or evidence that supports your view. But you don’t have to prove it. You must support your opinion with evidence, reasons, and facts. Unlike a university essay, you are not required to present the other side of the argument. But many writers do provide the opposing argument or view, as they desire to be viewed as an expert who is credible.

I often read the personal essays by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail, a newspaper published in Toronto, Canada. She writes about any topic you can think of. The other day she argued that environmentalism is ‘dead’ in an opinion essay called ‘The Agony of David Suzuki’. You can read it here:http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/margaret-wente/the-agony-of-david-suzuki/article2401816/ . After reading her essay, I could understand her point of view–and agreed with her. Not only did I gain an education, but I also acquired ammunition for my own opinion.

Before you write your opinion, make sure you have three or four important points to support your argument. Jot down these important points in an outline. Use this outline to guide you in writing the opinion essay. The more evidence you provide, the stronger your argument.

Writing the Opinion Essay

Your opinion essay requires a beginning, middle, and ending. In the beginning, identify the topic and state your opinion. Consider grabbing the attention of your readers by making a provocative statement, stating a fact, sharing an anecdote. In the body of the opinion essay, write your argument. For each major point, include a paragraph or more. End by making an important point, one that readers can take away and ponder.

Writing the Lead

Your lead should grabs readers’ attention and compels them to read on. This is called a hook. Your lead should tell readers why you are writing the opinion, why they should read your opinion essay, and introduce what you are making an opinion about. There is no rule about the length of a lead. Some leads are short, only a few sentences. Some are only a sentence in length. Other leads are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your lead will depend on the type of genre and the audience you are writing for.

There are several techniques you can use to write the lead for your opinion essay. Here are the most popular methods:
1. Ask a question. Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment?
2. Make a thought-provoking statement. This type of lead makes begins with an important point. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
3. Write an anecdote. It is a short story that reveals a truth or makes an important point.
4. Use a quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research.
5. Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences.
6. Use a combination lead. This method requires you to use a couple of methods. For instance, you might begin with a question, and then add a quotation from a well-known person.
7. When writing your lead, you can also answer a few questions: who? what? when? why? how?

Writing the Argument

In the body of your opinion essay, write the reasons or evidence for your opinion. Some evidence will come from research; others evidence will be based on observation, personal experience, and memory. An easy way to write an argument is to identify all the important points of your opinion. For each important point, include two or three reasons or facts or other evidence. Use an outline to guide you in writing the argument. As well, use the following argument structure:

Argument Structure:
Point #1
• Reason
• Reason
• Fact

Point#2
• Reason
• Evidence
• Fact

Point#3
• Reason
• Evidence
• Fact

This is not a five paragraph essay, because you might have additional important points to make, depending on the required length of your opinion essay.

Types of Paragraphs to Use

Author Priscilla Long, in “The Writer’s Portable Mentor,” identifies four types of paragraphs to use in any creative nonfiction:

The direct paragraph. It begins with a topical sentence, which identifies what the paragraph is about. Each sentence that follows will provide a reason or example or fact to support the topical sentence.

Example:
I believe in capital punishment. It’s a deterrent.. It protects society. It punishes the victim.

The climatic paragraph. Begin with a series of facts or evidence, and end with the topical sentence, which identifies what the paragraph is about.

Example:
The tee-off cost $100. I had to wait between holes. I lost 6 golf balls, and it rained, cancelling the game. I don’t like golf, and will never golf again.

Turn about paragraph. Begin on one place (the opposing evidence). Halfway through the paragraph, move in a new direction, providing your reasons or evidence. When you change direction, signal to the reader with words such as “and yet,” ” but,” or “nevertheless”

Example:
The film critic stated that the acting was superb and the special effects were awesome…And yet, during the film, I fell asleep from boredom….

Statement Paragraph. Make a statement, and support it with evidence, reasons, and facts. The second sentence expands on the first, the third sentence expands on the second, and the fourth sentence, expands on the third….

Writing the Ending

Once you finish writing your opinion essay, write a good ending. It should make a final point. In the text “On Writing Well, author ” William Zinsser suggests the following: “Knowing when to end…is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.” Zinsser goes on to say that a good ending is a sentence or two, or paragraph in length, but not any longer. It should take the reader by surprise and seem like the correct place to stop. Zinsser writes that when you are ready to stop, stop.

Here are a few things to consider when writing your ending:
1. Don’t summarize your essay or article.
2. Your ending should encapsulate the central idea of your opinion.
3. Your ending should finish with an important point. Otherwise the reader will think “So what? What was the point?”” Zinsser suggests that this sentence should jolt the reader with “unexpectedness.”

A popular way to end your piece is with a quotation. Another method is to restate the beginning. Other popular methods include:
• An opinion
• Judgement
• Recommendation
• Call to action

Writing Style

To write the opinion essay, use the following writing style:

• Write with the active voice, and not the passive voice.
• Write with concrete and specific nouns and action verbs.
• Use adjective and adverbs sparingly.
• Use sentence variety, such as simple, compound complex sentences. If you don’t know what these are read “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and “The Writer’s Personal Mentor” by Priscilla Long.
• Consider using rhetorical sentences, including the periodic sentence, the loose sentence, the balanced sentence, the antithesis sentence.
• Use literary devices, such as simile and metaphor, to make comparisons.
• Use appropriate diction or word choice. Use language readers will understand. Don’t use clichés or jargon. Use fresh and original language.
• Eliminate needless words. In other words, make each word count or perform something important.
• Follow the advice of “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale

Suggestions for Writing an Opinion Essay

Here are a few suggestions to help you write an opinion essay:
1. The best topics to write about are issues or events that are important to you. As well, write about what you know or have experienced.
2. Before you write an opinion essay, make sure you understand the topic or issue you are intending to comment on. Therefore, read articles, essays, books, search for personal experiences that support your opinion.
3. Create an outline before writing the opinion essay. This might involve jotting down the main points of your argument. You can this outline to guide you in writing the opinion essay.
4. The more facts, evidence, statistics, reasons you have, the stronger your argument.
5. In the beginning, state your opinion. In the body, write your argument. End with an important point.
6. Always revise your first draft. It is never your best work. To revise, complete a macro-edit (Structure and argument) and micro-edit (spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence patterns, paragraphs, figurative language.)

Additional Reading

If you want to learn more on how to write an opinion essay, read the following excellent resources:
• Elements of Style by Strunk and White
• One Year to a Writing Life by Susan M. Tiberghien
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser
• Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
• The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
• The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
• God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

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The Writing Life: The Art and Craft of Creative Writing

Dave Hood

“The Act of Writing Makes You a Writer.”—Julia Cameron

The best creative writing is both an art and craft. How is it an art? First, creative writers use  a set of cognitive skills to discover ideas to write about.  They learn to mine their memories, use their imagination, observe the outer world, apply their creative thinking abilities, and explore their curiosities.

Secondly, creative writing is the art of self-expression.  Writers  share their thoughts, feelings, and perspective about themselves and the world they inhabit.

Thirdly,  writers use their creative talents associated with language to write imaginatively with similes, metaphors, sensory imagery, and more.

Creative writing is also a craft in the sense that writers must learn the rules, guidelines, and techniques of writing.  To write,  a writer must learn the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  If the writer intends to write a poem, short story, or personal essay, the writer must learn the techniques of these genres.

Some people believe that  writing cannot be taught. I don’t agree. I feel that anyone who is motivated can learn both the “art of creative thinking” and  the “techniques” of creative writing.

In this article, I’ll explain how writer’s can learn to think more creatively by developing  several cognitive skills, which can be used  to find ideas and material.  The following will be covered:

  • Creative thinking
  • Memory
  • Imagination
  • Observation
  • Curiosity

I will also explore the craft of writing.  The following will be covered:

  • Showing and Telling
  • Literary techniques
  • Poetic Devices
  • Word choice/diction
  • Sentence Variety
  • Paragraph Development

The Art of Creative Writing

Creative writing is more than just writing about facts. It also is about using your creativity abilities to find ideas and collect material. It is also about thinking creatively so that you can discover a simile or metaphor to write a poem, or short story, or  personal essay.  In this section, I’ll explore a few ways in which you can learn to think more creatively.

Creative Thinking

You can learn a few creative thinking techniques, which will assist you in discovering  new ideas and details for your writing. These techniques will also assist you in writing better metaphors, similes, and types of comparisons.  Here are a few techniques that you can learn:

  • Brainstorm a list of ideas. How? Find a topic, and then list all the ideas that you might want to write about.
  • Ask “what if.” You can use this technique to write fiction or a poem. And then answer the question. Examples: What if you were diagnosed with a serious illness?…What if a meteor  plowed into the earth?…What if you won the lottery?…What if you  lost your job?
  • Challenge your assumptions.  You can use this techniques to find ideas to write about, to write poetry, to write fiction. What assumptions do you have about people, places, things, yourself, the world around you. Often truth is a matter of perspective. Your truth is often different than someone else’s.
  • Ask the question: “Why?” Then answer the question. You can use this technique  to find ideas and material to write about. You could begin by freewriting. Or you could do some research. For instance, why did 9/11 happen? Why do people write? Why do people smoke? Drink? Become murders?
  • Change your perspective. Step into the shoes of someone else. Emotional truth (How did it feel?) is always a matter of view point. You can use this technique for fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction.
  • Do some mind mapping. How? Take a blank piece of paper and draw a circle in the centre. Write down the topic inside the circle. For each associated idea, draw a line outward, and write the idea in a smaller circle. (Like a spoke in a wheel)
  • Look for alternatives. There is always more than one way to write a poem, tell a tale, or write a personal essay. You can use this technique for any type of creative writing.
  • Learn to make comparisons between different things. The easiest ways are to learn how to write similes and metaphors. A simile compares two thing by using “like” or “as.” Example: Writing a novel is like running a marathon. A metaphor compares two different things directly or indirectly without using “like” or “as.” Often the writer makes the comparison by using “is.”  Example:  Memorable writing is a work of art.

By learning to think creatively, you develop your artistic side.

 

Mine your Memory

Memories are the foundation of creative writing. Learn to mine your memories of people, places, events, and experiences. Here are a few techniques:

  • Write about what author Brenda Miller calls “the five senses of memory.” We experience the world through our sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. For instance: What is your favorite smell? What is the worst thing you’ve seen? What is the most delightful thing you’ve tasted? Once you have an answer (and there is no one right answer), write about it.
  • Do some focused freewriting. Sit down, write about something in your past, such as a birthday, graduation, first experience. As you write, you’ll discover that once you uncover a memory, you’ll discover related memories.
  • Use a timeline. For instance, pick a year from the past. Find out what happened during that year in the news.  World events, public figures, popular culture will bring back memories from your past. A good way to use a timeline is to conduct a Google Search.
  • What are your memories of special occasions, such as holidays, vacations, birthdays, graduations?
  • What are your achievements and accomplishments? What are your biggest mistakes?
  • What are the memories of first encounters? First car? First girlfriend? First job? First accident?
  • What are you happiest memories? What are your saddest memories?
  • What are the family traditions?
  • What are the turning points in your life?

For additional information on how to find ideas to write about, read “How to Write Your Own Life Story” by Louis Daniel.

Learning to dig up your memories is part of the art of writing.

Use Your Imagination

Most people are taught  to focus on facts, truth, reality. They are not taught to develop their imagination.  Imagination is about using your mind to create sensory details or mental pictures of things that are not actual present in your senses.  The best creative writers know how to use their imagination to uncover ideas and details. Here are a few methods you can use to develop your imagination:

  • Ask the question: what if? Then answer  the question.
  • Learn the writing technique of showing and telling. Showing is about writing a scene. A scene includes action, dialogue, setting, sensory details. Showing the reader also means writing concrete, significant, particular details. Showing is about writing sensory details.
  • Practise freewriting.  You can use focused freewriting or unfocused freewriting. If you use focused freewriting, you select a topic, and then begin to write. If you use unfocused freewriting,  you write down whatever details rise into your consciousness. In both types of freewriting, write down the sensory details, and show the reader what happened.
  • Practise responding to writing prompts. A writing prompt forces you to use your imagination to write in detail by using similes, metaphors, description. If you are interested in using writing prompts to develop your imagination, purchase a copy of ” The Writer’s Idea Book” by Jack Heffron or “The Writer’s Book of Days” by Judy Reeves.
  • Ask and answer the  questions that journalists use to develop a story: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? You can use this technique  write a poem, short story, or personal essay.

Learning to use your imagination will enable you to write more creatively.

Observe the Outside World

As a creative writer, you must  learn to observe the world in which you live and make note of  what you experience with your senses.  Here are three ways to collect details about the world around you:

  • Live in the now. In other words, make note of what is happening or what you are seeing, or hearing, or feeling, when as the event or experience unfolds. This means that you don’t live with the auto pilot switch turned on. It means that you are aware of what is going on in the present moment.
  • Make note of sensory details. When you observe an event or experience, make a mental note of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
  • Carry a notebook wherever they travel. When you see something interesting,  record the details. Make notes using concrete, specific, significant details. Make notes of anything unusual. Make notes of any idea that pops into your mind that might be used for a piece of writing.
  • Take yourself on an artistic date on a regular basis. For instance, visit the art gallery, buy a ticket to see a film, peruse the bookshelves of a bookstore. The artistic date will provide you with ideas to explore and write about.

Curiosity

The best writers are curious. They desire to know why? They desire to find answers to important questions. They have a passion for learning. They read books, magazines, newspapers— to feed their hunger for knowledge.

How can you develop your curiosity?  Write down all the topics or subjects you’d like to learn. Take one of those ideas or subjects and learn about it .  Read  books, magazines, journals. Do it for pleasure.  Conduct research to become a subject matter expert. Write about what you’ve learned.

As well, keep a writing journal, and make note of words, ideas, concepts, news events, that you don’t understand. When you have a question about something, write it in your journal. If it’s an important question, conduct research on the Web or visit the library. Then learn your material. Next, write about what you’ve learned.

Here’s an example of why curiosity is important to writing. Suppose you dream of writing a historical novel. Before  you can write about that period in history, you’ll have to conduct research of that time period. How would you conduct research? You can search on the Web, visit the Library, and read books on the historical period. With this knowledge, you’ll be able to write nonfiction details in a piece of fictional writing.

The Craft of Creative Writing

Creative writing requires that you learn the craft of writing. You  must learn the rules, guidelines, and techniques of writing. Otherwise,  readers will not read your work, and editors won’t publish your work. Here are a few important techniques about craft you should learn:

Showing and Telling. If you intend on becoming a creative writing, you must learn how to show and tell the reader what happened .  Showing the reader is about  writing in scenes. It is about creating word pictures in the mind of the reader.  Typically, a scene includes a setting, action, dialogue, and sensory details. These are details  about sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Telling is about summarizing what happened. It is about compressing and condensing time. It is about excluding vivid details.   Example: I woke up, read the newspaper, ate breakfast, then worked all day. It was an uneventful day.

Literary Techniques. You must learn the literary techniques  for writing fiction:

  • Setting
  • Plot Development
  • Character and characterization
  • Theme
  • Point of view
  • Voice and Style
  • Suspense, flashback, foreshadowing
  • Showing and telling

You will use these to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, such as a memoir or personal essay.

Poetic Devices. You must learn how to use the following poetic devices:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Imagery
  • Sound devices of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia
  • Symbolism
  • Personification

You will use these to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

Word choice/diction. Use a dictionary to find the right word with the right meaning. Use a thesaurus to find the word with the right shade of meaning.

The Sentence. To avoid sounding dull,  learn how to use a variety of sentence structures, including:

  • Intentional fragment. Use of a phrase or dependent clause instead of an independent clause.  A famous quotation. New words that interest. Lyrics from a song. Observations. Overheard conversations. Fleeting memories. Dreams. Photographs.  Lots of odds and ends are included  in my writing journal.
  • Simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences.
  • Periodic sentence or climactic sentence. You begin with a series of details, and end with the independent clause. Example: Falling from the tree into the ice river, gasping for air, being then pulled by the strong under tow, I exerted all of my energies to swim to shore.
  • Cumulative sentence.  You begin with the main idea in an independent clause, and then add one idea after another.  Example: I love the spring, the fresh air, sunny days, blooming flowers, green grass, watching baseball,  and riding my bike.

To learn more, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long. She identifies the various types of sentences you should learn to write.

The Paragraphs. Learn how to create a variety of paragraphs.  Author Priscilla Long, in “The Writer’s Portable Mentor,”  identifies four paragraphs that you should learn to write. These include:

  • The direct paragraph. This type of paragraph begins with a topical sentence, and then adds details.
  • Climactic paragraph. It begins with examples or illustrations, and ends with the main, controlling idea or topical sentence.
  • Turnabout paragraph. It is a paragraph that begins in one place and then turns in another direction in the middle. This type of paragraph contrasts ideas.  You signal a change in direction to the reader by using  the words,  “but” or ”  nevertheless” or  “and yet.”
  • Statement paragraph. Begin with a statement and then elaborate with a series of sentences.

Developing Your Writing Skills

Becoming a good writer takes time. And during that time you must learn and practise. What must you do? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. If you are just getting started, purchase a few writing tools: a notebook, pen, laptop, dictionary, and thesaurus.
  2. Begin keeping a writing journal. It will develop your habit of writing.  Write in the journal each day.  Write every day for 15 minutes or so. Write about anything that inspires you or is on your mind.
  3. Find ideas to write about. An easy way is to read the newspaper,  books, and magazines.
  4. Learn the craft of writing. Learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar, and writing style. If you don’t have a copy, pick up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
  5. Expand your vocabulary. There are many ways:  1) Learn a word a day. 2) Every time you bump into a word you don’t  understand, look up its meaning. 3)Use these new words in conversation and in your writing. 4) Discover synonyms by using a thesaurus. For instance, instead of using the word “walk”, you might say  plodded, dawdled, marched, strode, stroll, lumbered, wandered, traipsed,  trekked.
  6. Read poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction for pleasure. Reading will inspire you.
  7. Read as a writer. This involves reading and analyzing the writer’s style, tone, and voice.
  8. Learn to write imaginatively. This involves learning how to write similes and metaphors and other poetic devices. It also involves learning  how to show the reader what happened, how to write sensory images that appeal to the readers sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. It involves learning how to write concrete, specific, and significant details. A good book to help you is “Imaginative Writing” by Janet Burroway.
  9. If you are not interested in learning on your own, take a creative writing course in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Or join a writing group. Or attend a writing conference. Or take a trip to a writing retreat for a few days.
  10. Schedule an artistic date with yourself. Author, Julia Cameron, in “The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you go on a “Artist Date” each week. This involves participating in something creative each week or two–such as visiting the book store, the art gallery, music concert.

If you desire to become a strong writer, you must learn the art and craft of writing. Begin by  embracing the writing life. Write and read every day. Keep a journal. Get into the habit of writing. Learn the rules of spelling, punctuation, grammar.  Learn the elements of fiction. Learn the literary techniques and poetic devices. Learn to show and tell what happened.  Learn how to write free verse poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction.  Experiment with your writing. Find inspiration. Learn to write creatively with simile, metaphor, sensory imagery, and vivid description.  The act of writing each day makes you a writer.

Resources

For more information, read the following:

  • The  Right to Write by Julia Cameron
  • Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway
  • How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig
  • The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long

Learning to Write Free Verse Poetry

Poets use different methods to compose their poetry.  As well, books on “how to write poetry” offer a variety of suggestions. Some poets write a poem one word at a time. Others write line by line. Many write down a complete draft, and then revise for alliteration, simile, rhythm, and so forth.  Clearly, there is no “one right way” to compose a poem.

In this post, I will explain my approach to writing poetry. The following will be covered:

  • How to prepare to write a poem
  • How to begin a poem
  • How to write a poem
  • How to revise a poem

As well, I’ll provide you with a few suggestions on how to become a poet. ( To call yourself a poet, you must learn the techniques and write poetry on a regular basis.)

Preparing to Begin

Suppose you’ve read lots of poems, learned the techniques, and have found inspiration and a subject to write a poem about. How should you begin? Start with some preparation. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Keep a writing journal, making notes in it each day. When you require an idea, check your journal. It might contain an idea for a poem.
  • Before writing, contemplate what you desire to compose a poem about.
  • Read some poetry or some other inspirational writing that you enjoy— to light the flame of  creativity.
  • Jot down a few important points you wish to make for the poem you intend  to write.
  • Freewrite for 10 minutes or more.
  • Select a subject.
  • Choose a form–narrative, meditative, image, prose poem….
  • Decide how you intend to write the poem. Some poets write word by word. Others write line by line. Other write out the complete poem, and then revise.

Determining how the Poem Unfolds

There is no single method of beginning a poem. It is your creative decision to make. However, your intention should be to “catch” the attention your reader, and motivate them to read your poem. And so, your beginning should be interesting. For instance, you might begin with the “cause” or in the “middle of the action.” In “A Poet’s Guide to Poetry,” author, Mary Kinzie, identifies some of the ways poets begin and develop a poem. Here are a few of her suggestions:

  • Cause and effect
  • Then and now
  • Description
  • Argument
  • Meditation
  • Explanation
  • Observation
  • Confession

Other methods of  beginning and progressing:

  • Narrative where there is a central character, often the speaker of the poem,  a conflict, climax, resolution.
  • Anecdotes A short narrative that makes an interesting point.

John Drury, author of Creating Poetry, writes that the opening of a poem doesn’t have to be “flashy.”  It can:

  • Set the scene
  • Begin with a question
  • Begin with a statement
  • Begin with a quotation
  • Begin with a fragment
  • Begin with an image

He also writes that if you are writing a narrative poem, you can begin “in medias res,” which means in the middle of things. In other words, start with the action or main event.

Remember, the purpose of a poem is to provide the reader with both pleasure and meaning. Keep these two points in mind as you write poetry.

Writing the Poem

Once you are inspired and have a subject to write about, you can begin to compose the poem. First, ask yourself: will I write about the ” outer world” or world I experience with my senses?” Or will I write about the ” inner world,” the world of my “psyche”  or  “self” ? (Confessional poets write poems about “the self”, such as depression, addiction, loss, grief, disease.)

I like to begin a poem with a title. Sometimes, the title is a word from the poem, Sometimes, the title is the first line of the poem. Always, the title tells the reader what the poem is about.

Next, ask yourself: what type of free verse poem am I going to write? For instance, if you are intending to tell a story, your narrative poem requires a beginning, middle, and end.

Then, ask yourself: how should I begin? There is no “one way.” You might begin with an image, a question, or in the middle of a scene.

Next, if you’ve decided to write a narrative poem, you are going to tell a story.  You will tell your story using as fewest words possible. In other words, each word must perform some function. If you are going to write line by line, you’ll have to determine what sorts of sentences to use–fragment, simple, compound sentences, and so forth. You will also want to keep in mind that the most important ideas should be expressed at the end of a line. In writing the poem, you might use simile, metaphor, imagery, alliteration, and other popular poetic devices. It all depends on your skill level and creative vision.

When you arrive at the end of the poem, you should end with something meaningful, such as an epiphany, or insight.

Here is an example of a first draft of a confessional poem. Notice how the title tells the reader what the poem is about.  It’s called  “Unemployed.”

Unemployed

It’s early morning. Slept poorly.

Neighbors have gone to work.

Like a shut-in, I sit in this silent house,

sip my hot coffee,

read  the newspaper,

listen to the litany

of depressing news

on CNN television.

I think to myself:

Life savings are depleting.

Unable to pay the bills.

Unable to put food on the table.

Creditors are telephoning every day

like hungry rats waiting to feast.

How long must I search for work?

What am I going to do?

It feels like an inescapable nightmare.

From this first draft, you can begin the revision process, by adding, deleting, altering.

Revising the Poem

How do you revise a poem?  Your first attempt at writing a poem rarely results in your best work.  You should view your first attempt as a rough draft. I recommend that you write a complete poem and then take a break. This break allows you to distance yourself. When you return from your break, you will be able  to view the poem from a fresh perspective and begin revising.What should you revise? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Be sure the title tells the reader what the poem is about. Perhaps it represents the first line of the poem.
  • Be sure you are using concrete nouns.
  • Be sure you are using action verbs.
  • Be sure you are using the active voice.
  • Be sure to use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.
  • Make sure you have shown the reader and not told them.
  • Be sure that your images appeal to the readers sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
  • Have you included similes or metaphors to entertain or to make the abstract concrete?
  • Have you used sound effects? Alliteration. Assonance. Onomatopoeia. Internal rhyme or end rhyme.
  • Have you used a friendly, conversational voice?
  • What point of view have you used? Is it effective? Is it consistent? If a shift in point of view, why?
  • Does your poem evoke emotion?
  • Does your poem have rhythm?
  • Does your poem have meaning? Look to the last stanza or line. Does it express some insight or epiphany?
  • Have you used poetic devices of simile and metaphor and imagery to entertain the reader?
  • Does the last line tell the reader something important, such as share words of wisdom, share an insight, share meaning?

When do you know when your poem is finished? You might end when it feels right. Kim Addonizio, author of ” The Poet’s Companion,” suggests that a poem is a work of art,  “A work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.”

A Few Suggestions on How to Become a Poet

Suppose you’ve decided to become a creative writer. You intend to write free verse poetry. How do you learn?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read lots of poetry by good poets, such as Charles Simic, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, Billy Collins. If you discover a poet that you really like, read all that poet’s poems. There are countless books, magazines, and websites that publish poetry, which you can read. Begin by checking out http://www.poetryfoundation.org  and http://www.poets.org or http://www.poetryarchive.com
  2. Learn the popular forms and techniques for writing a free verse poem. Some popular forms include narrative, meditative, image, confessional.  You must also learn how to use line breaks, simile, metaphor, rhythm, imagery, vivid descriptions, alliteration, and more. How to you learn? There are many valuable resources that will teach aspiring poets how to write free verse poetry. Start by reading “The Poet’s Companion” by Kim Addonizio, a useful text with sections on inspiration and subject matter, the craft of writing poetry, the writing life, exercises on how to write poetry, and additional resources.
  3. Practise the techniques by writing in a personal journal. For instance, to learn how to write a simile, experiment in your journal. For instance, suppose you wanted to practise writing a simile. You could begin by making comparisons. Here are a few: A building is like a statue…The street lamp is like a candle that lights a dark room…. At night, my neighborhood is like an abandoned town…Snow falls like white confetti. How to practise? Read “In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and complete the exercises.
  4. Find inspiration and subjects to write about.  You can look inward to your psyche, and write about your thoughts, feelings, impressions, what you’ve contemplated, a memory, or dream, something you’ve imagined. Or you can look outward—and view the world around you. You might write about something you’ve read, overheard, observed, or experienced. One of the best ways to find inspiration is to read a wide variety of books, magazines, newspapers, and content on websites or blogs. Curiosity fuels inspiration.
  5. Imitate the form, style, techniques of your favorite poets. To do this, you’ll have to learn the techniques or poetic devices that enable you to construct a poem, and then you’ll have to analyze the poem, to discover how it was constructed by the poet.
  6. Once you feel confident, begin writing a poem on a regular basis. You might start by writing a poem once a week. Please note that a poem can be about anything. Furthermore, poets have written poems about anything you can image, such as art, death, suicide, sex, love, war, depression, an image, a fleeting moment, a dream, an observation, a personal experience, other poets, parts of speech, and much more.
  7. Revise your poetry. You first attempt is never your best. Writing a poem is an iterative process. A good poem is the result of many revisions.
  8. Take a course on how to write poetry at university, or enroll online in a course, or read a few books on how to write poetry. I’ve learned most of my creative writing through self-study. A marvelous book  that will teach you how to write poetry is “The Poetry Companion” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. (This is a must read. Every creative writer should own a copy.)

What’s the best way to learn how to write poetry? Author John Drury, in” Creating Poetry,” writes that “the greatest single means of learning how to do something is imitation.” He suggests that you “latch on” to a model poet, one you like, or several poets you admire, and begin to write poems in the style and techniques and subjects that they do.

You first attempt is never your best work, and so after writing a poem, you must set it aside, and take a break. When you return, read your poem aloud to yourself. Then ask yourself: Do I like it? If you don’t, revise it. You might add details, cut out details, change details. You might also make the poem sound and read as a poem by adding one or more poetic devices, such as imagery, simile, metaphor, alliteration, and so forth.

When are you finished writing a poem? Many writers believe that a poem is never finished—and can always be altered or revised. I tend to agree that “a poem is never finished, just abandoned.”

To become a poet, you must learn the poetic techniques and then begin to write poetry. The act of writing a poem makes you a poet.

Resources

For more information on how to write free verse poetry, read the following:

  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit

Writing Free Verse Poetry: Finding Inspiration and a Subject

By Dave Hood

Where do you find inspiration to write free verse poetry? Many aspiring writers wait for inspiration to come into their life. The problem with this approach is that the writer relies on chance, and might wait a lifetime to discover something that motivates them to begin writing poetry.  A better way to become inspired is to seek out experiences that will light the flame of creativity.

Once you’ve become inspired to write a poem, you’ll need to select a subject to write about. Poets have written poems on any subject you can image, such as a birth, love, death, depression, a fleeting moment, an overheard conversation, a random act of kindness.

In this post, I’ll explain where to find inspiration and identify some of the subjects that can be the foundation of a poem.

Finding Inspiration

There are countless people, places, events, objects, things—all of which can inspire you to write a poem. Inside most how-to- books on poetry, you’ll see a chapter  on “finding inspiration for a poem.”  Whether you write poetry, short fiction, personal essays–inspiration comes from the same sources. Here are 12 sources of inspiration:

  1. Dreams. Write a poem about some dream. To use this technique, you’ll have to remember your dream. Therefore, you’ll have to keep a notebook and pen on your bedside table. If you wake up, and remember the dream, you can record it with the pen and notebook.
  2. Memories. Write a poem based on a memory. What is the happiest time in year life? What is the saddest? What was your favorite toy? Fondest holiday? Most influential book?
  3. Contemplation. Ponder a question, an idea, a concept, some word, a fact, and then compose a poem.  Example: What is love?
  4. Observation. Many poets write poems about the world in which they live, such as their home, their neighborhood, their city, their region, their country. Instead of turning inward to the psyche, they observe some interesting trait of the world and write a poem. For instance, if you live in the city, you might write about  the traffic jams, the noise, the stress, alienation, a stranger, waiting for the bus, working in a skyscraper, riding the subway. When using this approach, make note of the sensor images–things you see, things you touch, what you smell, what you taste, what you hear.
  5. Conversation. Some poets are inspired to write a poem based on something they heard in a conversation. Perhaps you’ve heard something interesting waiting for the buss, at a party, listening to the radio.
  6. Personal experience. Confessional poets write about a personal experience, such as depression, grief, job loss, cancer, end of a romance, death of a loved one. When writing about personal experience, you share emotional truth in your poem. This emotional truth answers the question: How does it feel to you?
  7. Writing journal. Part of living the writing life is to keep a writing journal or notebook. Every time you see, hear, or read something interesting, you make note of it in your journal. When you require inspiration to write a poem, you look through your journal for the seed of a poem.
  8. Writing prompts. If you take a course or read a book on how to write poetry, you’ll learn about writing prompts.  These are suggestions for writing a poem. They are designed to “inspire you” to write. For instance, at the end of each chapter of “The Poet’s Companion”, author Kim Addonizio includes a list of writing prompts. Example: Write a poem in which you feel a sense of shame. You can also go online and conduct a Google search to find writing prompts.
  9. Reading. If you always want to have something to write about, you must always have an idea for a poem. One of the best ways to replenish the creative spirit is to read. You can read poetry, fiction, nonfiction, books about art, books about philosophy, magazines on psychology, pop culture, history, biography, and so forth. By reading widely and deeply, you’ll discover countless ideas that can become the foundation of a poem.
  10. Imagination. Some poets tap into their imagination for ideas. A simple way to use your imagination is to ask “What if?”
  11. Fleeting moments. A poem doesn’t have to be about some event that unfolds over a long period of time. Instead, a poem can be based on some “fleeting moment” in time, such as a first kiss.
  12. Borrowing an idea from another poet. Most poets write poems based on other poets poetry. In other words, they read a poem about love, or grief, or place, or an experience–and then use the idea to write their own poem. You can do the same.

Subjects to Write About

Once you’ve become inspired to write a poem, you can select a subject. What sorts of things can you write about? Essentially, you can compose a poem about anything. For instance, Billy Collins wrote a poem “Man in Space,” Ted Kooser wrote a poem called “My Grandfather Dying,” Robert Hass wrote a poem called “Happiness.” Here are 12 ideas you can use as a foundation for a poem:

  1. Write a poem about what you know. A hobby, school, work, love, illness, sickness, sadness, grief, lust, desire, sex…Write about what you like and dislike. Write about fatherhood or motherhood or childhood. Write about a memorable event, daily routine, family.
  2. Write a poem about grief or death. Many poets have written elegies, a poem that laments someone who has died. Poet Kim Addonizio suggests you capture “intimate details that are emblems of your particular loss. You could also use a metaphor or imagery to write about death. Or you could read the obituaries, then write a poem about a person who has died.
  3. Write a poem about lust, the erotic, sex, passion, a first sexual encounter, a first kiss.
  4. Write about your dark side or shadow. Kim Addonizio, in the Poets Companion, suggests you confront taboo, your inner critic, your insecurities, the forbidden, to wrote a poem. Some topics to consider: anxiety, depression, incest, abuse, addiction, self-loathing, a personal secret, a fetish, something you are embarrassed about. See the confessional poetry of Anne Sexton.
  5. Write about concerns, issues, events in the news. Topics to consider: pollution, war, poverty, AIDS, faith, God, crime, racism, patriotism, social justice, mental illness.
  6. Write about nature or wildlife, such as the ocean, a river, the mountains, the beach, birds, animals, trees, flowers. See the poetry of Mary Oliver.
  7. Write about a particular place, such as your home, neighborhood, hometown, workplace, a trip, a vacation,  a foreign place, and imaginary place.
  8. Write  a narrative poem. For instance, Homer wrote Iliad and Odyssey, but you don’t have to write an epic poem. Instead write something shorter, based on something that happened. Many contemporary poems are narratives. Read Ted Kooser’s “So This is Nebraska.”
  9. Write a poem about a person. The person might be dead or alive, a hero or villain, a celebrity or political figure, an artist, musician, writer, even another poet.
  10. Write a poem about a special occasion, such as a birthday, memorial, funeral, Christmas, Easter, Holidays, milestone.
  11. Write a poem about mythology or folklore, such as a fairy tale, legend, Greek Gods, horror, ghosts, the supernatural.
  12. Write about some pleasure. Start by asking yourself: What gives me pleasure? Perhaps you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, reading the newspaper, seeing a film at the theatre. Answer the question, then write a poem.

Resources

For more information on writing free verse, read the following books:

  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit

Writing Free Verse Poetry: Stanza, Line Break, Style

Dave Hood

The best free verse poets use several techniques of style to compose their poetry. Four important stylistic choices available to the poet are:

  • Stanzas
  • Line breaks
  • Syntax or sentence structure or sentence variety
  • Grammar of a poem

A stanza is a group of lines in a poem, separated by white space. The stanza is the body of the poem. Sometimes you’ll see stanzas of two lines, three lines, four lines—-or one long stanza. The stanza in free verse is a way to organize related ideas, a way to create a pause, a way to add emphasis to related lines.

A line break is a tool that the poet uses to create a particular effect, such as a pause or to emphasize an idea, word, phrase. Sage Cohen, author of “Writing the Life Poetic“ writes: “Lines act as the engine that moves the reader through a poem.”

A good understanding of syntax or sentence structure will help you write better poetry. Sentence structure contributes to the rhythm of a poem.

The style of a poem is determined by the poet’s decisions about word choice, syntax, poetic devices,  and tone.

The best poets follow the rules and conventions of grammar. They use the active voice, write with concrete nouns and actions verbs, and use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.

In this post, I’ll discuss how to use the stanza, line break, syntax, and grammar to write good or memorable free verse poetry.

Stanza

What is a stanza? It is a group of lines in a poem, separated by white space. Stanzas are the body of a poem. They follow the title. The stanza in a poem is like a paragraph in prose. Sometimes a stanza is short, consisting of only a line. Other times, a stanza is long, making up the entire poem.

How do you know when to create a new stanza? The stanza in poetry is a device for organizing related ideas.

A new stanza is also a way to signal a change in time, place, perspective, and so forth.

The stanza is also used to tell the reader to stop and ponder. The white space before or after the stanza signals this to the reader.

The stanza also influences the momentum of a poem. Sage Cohen, author of Writing the Life Poetic writes: “Stanza’s influence the poems momentum. Line breaks cause the reader to linger an extra beat; the space between stanzas bring the reader to a sharp stop.”

The stanza is used to change direction. For instance, the poet who composes a narrative poem about “my day” might have one stanza for what happened during the “morning, another stanza for the “afternoon,”  and a final stanza for the “evening.”

In traditional poetry, there are rules for determining the number of lines and number of stanzas in a poem. For instance, the Shakespearean Sonnet is one stanza of 14 lines. Each line is an iambic meter. It is also an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnet 18)

by William Shakespeare

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 dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest 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.

In contrast, the modern or contemporary free verse poem requires no particular stanza length and no particular rhyme scheme. A free verse poem can have one of three types of stanzas:

  • A single stanza.
  • Several stanzas with the same number of lines.
  • Several stanzas, each with a different number of lines.

Free verse poets sometimes use stanzas found in traditional poetry. Kenneth Koch, poet and author of “Making Your Own Days”, writes that the most common “stanza in English is the couplet, two rhyming lines together.”

In free verse poetry, you are free to determine when to break begin a new stanza and to determine the number of lines in each stanza. Remember that each time you end a new stanza, you tell the reader to stop–and take a long pause.

Line Breaks

In traditional poetry, the poet must often break a line to comply with a particular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. In free verse poetry, the poet doesn’t have to comply to any rules. The poet can break a line for any number of reasons. Here are the most popular reasons why a poet breaks a line and begins a new line:

  • To emphasize a word or phrase at the end of a line.
  • To signal a pause to the reader.
  • To speed up or slow down the pace.
  • To create a sense of forward motion.
  • To change of thought.
  • To create an  interruption.
  • To comply with the rules of grammar.
  • To create a metrical pattern or syllabic pattern.

Suppose you wanted to write a short poem about spring, you could write:

Sunshine, blooming tulips, green grass, a warm breeze

A leisure ride on a bike—-

These are the ingredients of a favorite spring day.

Or you could write:

Sunshine

Blooming tulips

Green grass

a warm breeze

a leisure ride on a bike

These are the ingredients

of  a favorite spring day.

Or you could write something else.

Here are a few popular ways in which you can create a line break:

  1. Use white space on a line, between lines, between  stanzas.
  2. Indent a line of a poem with white space.
  3. Use end stop, such as comma or period.
  4. Use enjambment to break a phrase in half, creating a sense of forward motion.
  5. Use a dash, question mark, exclamation mark.
  6. Break a line at the end of a phrase or sentence.

Use a line break emphasize words or an idea at the end of a line, or to follow a rhythmic pattern,  or to signal the reader to pause after reading the line.

Syntax/Sentence Structure

The words “syntax” and “sentence structure” are used interchangeably. Syntax refers to the types of sentence structures a poet selects to write a  poem. In free verse poetry, there are no rules for the types sentences structures you can use. However, to avoid writing dull poetry, you`ll want to vary your syntax or sentence structure. For instance, if you desire to speed up the pace, you`ll write a short sentence or series of short sentences. If you desire to create a poem with lots of depth, you might use appositives, compound sentences, or complex sentences. If you want to create rhythm, you`ll use parallel structure. If you want to create a poem that moves to a climax, you`ll use the periodic sentence. What types of syntax ought you use to write poems? Here are the popular types of sentence structures:

  • Simple sentence (A single independent clause) Example: The ship sailed/across the sea.
  • Compound sentence (Two independent clause separated by a coordinating conjunction, such as  and, or, but, for, so, nor, yet. Example: The ship sailed across the sea/and the crew worked like slaves.
  • Complex sentence (A sentence with one independent clause, and at least one dependent clause. Example: While the snow fell, the old man in the living room/ sipped hot coffee/ read the newspaper/ next to the warmth of the fire place.
  • Cumulative Sentence. An independent clause, followed by several subordinate phrases or dependent clauses.
  • Periodic Sentence. Several subordinate phrases or dependent clauses, ending with a independent clause. A few logs/Kindling Wood/a match/ a fire place/marsh mellows/a roaring camp fire/
  • Inverted Sentence. It is a sentence in which the predicate or verb comes before the subject, or the complete subject and verb, coming after a . Example: Rarely have I eaten better spaghetti.
  • Sentence Fragment. A sentence that is a phrase or dependent clause. Reading the newspaper. Snapping a photograph. Playing the piano.
  • Parallel Structure. Nouns, verbs, phrases, clauses that have the same function or express similar ideas should match grammatically. Use parallel structure for items in a series, coorelative conjunctions, and coordinating conjunctions.

Here is an example of how a poet can use different sentence patterns in a poem:

Piano 

by D. H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;

Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see

A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings

And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song

Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong

To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside

And hymns in the cozy parlor, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamor

With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour

Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast

Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

In this poem, D. H. Lawrence uses several types of sentences. Here are four:

  • And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings. (Simple sentence with a single independent clause)
  • In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song betrays me back…(Complex sentence)
  • Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep, like a child for the past. (Complex sentence)
  • Softly, in dusk, a woman is singing to me. (Simple sentence with a single independent clause and phrase)

If you are not sure about the syntax of a sentence, such as the difference between, a fragment, simple sentence, complex sentence,  you should read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark,  and “Sin and Syntax“ by Constance Hale,  and “Woe is I“ by Patricia T. O`Conner.

The Grammar of a Poem

All good poets follow the rules and conventions of grammar. The poet know the parts of speech and how to use them. The poet knows the parts of a sentence and how to use them. The poet knows punctuation and how to use it. (The period, the dash, the question mark, the comma, and semi-colon, and so forth.) Here are a few grammatical guidelines you should following when composing a free verse poem:

  • Uses concrete nouns whenever possible.
  • Use action verbs whenever possible.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Use adverbs sparingly.
  • Use the active voice.
  • Make sure the subject agrees with the verb.
  • Make sure the pronoun agrees with the noun it refers to.
  • Use words, phrases, clauses, sentences variety.
  • Use parallel structure.

As well, it is acceptable to:

  • Split infinitives
  • End a sentence with a preposition
  • Begin a sentence with “and” or “but“
  • Use sentence fragments

Finally, when composing a poem, you ought to use correct punctuation or no punctuation at all. However, if you desire to become a good poet, you’ll create poems with correct punctuation—and when you don’t use proper punctuation, you’ll know why. It is really only acceptable to break the rules when you know why. And so, you must know how to use:

  • The coma.
  • The period.
  • The dash.
  • The colon.
  • The semi-colon.
  • The exclamation mark.
  • The ellipse.
  • The parenthesis.

If you are not sure about your grammar, you can read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark,  and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale,  and “Woe is I” by Patricia T. O`Conner.

Resources

To learn more about writing free verse poetry, read the following:

  • How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch
  • The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt
  • A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • The Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie
  • Making Your Own Days by Kenneth Koch
  • In the Poem of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit

Writing Free Verse Poetry: Poetic Devices of Comparison

Dave Hood

Poets use various poetic devices or figures of speech to make comparisons. These figures of speech are intended to enhance understanding, to entertain, to add deeper meaning, and to enrich the quality of a poem. These figures of speech are also used by writers in other forms of creative writing, such as short fiction, novel writing, personal essay, and memoir writing.

In this post, I’ll explain how to use the poetic devices of comparison. The following will be covered:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Symbol
  • Synecdoche
  • Metonymy
  • Personification
  • Allusion

Simile

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet uses “like” or “as” to compare one thing to  some other thing. The things compared must be unlike each other. The purpose of a simile is to add meaning and understanding. A good simile also makes a poem pleasurable to read. It can turn a dull poem into something memorable. For instance, Robert Frost wrote” the attic wasps went missing by like bullets.” Here are a few other examples:

  • The neighborhood is like a ghost town.
  • The sick man looks like a corpse.
  • You are free as a gold-fish in an aquarium.
  • He writes as if possessed by a demon.
  • She strolls down the beach like a model on a runway in a fashion show.
  • The truck is rusty as a wreck in the scrap yard.

Metaphor

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet suggests the one thing is another. The poet does not use “like” or “as” to make the comparison between two different things. Often the word “is” or “of” is used to make the comparison.

A poet can create an explicit metaphor by directly suggesting that one thing is another. Example: He is a shark. She is a black widow spider. (A is B) Or the poet can make an implied metaphor by comparing one thing to another using the attributes of the object, such as adjectives or verbs associated with it. Example: He sailed down the highway in his new corvette. (Comparison to a sailboat) She cut him with her claws. (comparison to an animal)

The purpose of a an explicit or implied metaphor is to entertain the reader, to help the reader understand, to add deeper meaning to a poem.

Examples:

  • The running back is a tank.
  • The old man is a walking corpse
  • The house is a mausoleum.
  • Place of grief
  • Sea of death
  • Dinner of gratitude
  • Gift of pleasure
  • Lust is a drug
  • Teeth of the wind
  • Mouth of a river

Poets must avoid using dead metaphors. These are metaphors that have been used so often that they’ve lost their originality and effectiveness. The comparison has taken on a new meaning of expression —and is often viewed as a cliché. Examples of dead metaphors include:

  • Seeds of doubt
  • Fishing for compliments
  • Grasp the idea

Poets must also avoid creating mixed metaphors. A poet creates a mixed metaphor when one thing is compared to two different things in the same metaphor. A few ludicrous examples include:

  • I can see the light at the end of the rainbow.
  • I make my goal to shake every hand that walks in the door.
  • I am bone empty.

Symbol

It is a poetic device in which the poet an image to represent something other than its literal meaning or dictionary meaning. A symbol is usually a physical object used to represent some abstract idea. For instance, a  rose can be a symbol of beauty. A dove can be a symbol of peace. The cross can be a symbol of Christianity, faith, Jesus. The lion is a symbol of courage. The gun is a symbol of violence.

Poets use well-established symbols in their poetry, such as darkness for ignorance or light for knowledge.  Many poets also create their own symbols and then use them in a poem.

Not all images are intended to be symbolic. Sometimes a gun is just a gun, or a clock is just a clock.  It is up to the reader to analyze and then identify the symbol in the poem. For instance, a poet might make reference to a ticking clock in his poem. The purpose of the clock might be to symbolize the passage of time.

Synecdoche

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet makes reference to the “part of something” instead of its whole, and this part is used to represent the whole.

Examples:

  • Skates sail up the ice. (Instead of writing “The hockey player sails up the ice.”)
  • The teenager purchased a “set of wheels.” (Instead of writing “The teenager purchased a car.”
  • All hands on deck (Instead of writing “All sailors on deck.”)

Metonymy

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which one thing closely associated with another thing is used as a substitution. Frances Mayes, author of The Discovery of Poetry, states that a metonymy is ” an identifying emblem” substituted for the whole name. In other words, an associated quality or name or emblem,  which is not part of the whole, is substituted.

Examples:

  • Crown instead of monarchy
  • White House instead of President and Staff
  • Habs instead of Montreal Canadians
  • Leafs instead of Toronto Maple Leafs
  • Broncos instead of Denver Broncos

Personification

It is a poetic device or figure of speech in which the poet assigns human characteristics or human attributes to nonhuman things, such as ideas, concepts, places, objects, animals. The purpose of personification is to add deeper meaning, to entertain, to describe.

Examples:

  • Death comes knocking
  • Love arrives unexpectedly
  • Old Man Winter
  • Lady Luck
  • Jack Frost
  • April turns on the shower
  • The maple trees stood in silence
  • The walls stare back and talk nonsense
  • The wind whispers through a crack

Allusion

It is a poetic device or figure of speech  in which the poet makes reference to another person, event, art, history, religion, literature, mythology, or some aspect of popular culture. An allusion can also be a statement or quotation made by a famous or public person. An allusion can also be a line from a poem. Popular types of allusions  in poetry are biblical allusions, literary allusions, and mythical allusions. The purpose of allusion is to provide additional meaning. For the allusion to be effective, the reader must have knowledge of what the poet is alluding to. Example: The painting reminds/ of Picasso’s Cubism..f

T.S. Eliot often used allusion in many of his poems. For instance, in The Wasteland, he includes “I remember/those are the pearls that were his eyes…,” a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

To master the art and craft of  writing poetry,  you must learn the poetic devices of comparison, such as simile, metaphor, and symbol. Once you`ve learned these poetic devices, you can use them to write powerful, entertaining, memorable poems.

Resources

For more information on simile, metaphor, symbol, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, allusion, read the following:

  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  • Western Wind by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
  • Creating Poetry by John Drury

Writing Free Verse Poetry: Adding Sound Effects

By Dave Hood

When writing a poem, a good poet will choose words for their meaning and their sound. Memorable poems have a pleasing sound. A pleasing sound is like music to the ear. The poet who composes free verse can select several poetic devices to create a pleasing sound, such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. The best writers also use these poetic when writing fiction or creative nonfiction. In this post, I will discuss the poetic devices poets (and writers) use to create a pleasing sound. The following will be covered:

  • Alliteration
  •  Assonance
  •  Onomatopoeia
  •  Rhyme
  •  Repetition/refrain

Alliteration

It refers to the poetic technique of repeating the initial consonant sound in two or more words on a line. Here is an example of alliteration from Jane Kenyon’s poem This Morning: “…Sunflower seed and bits of bread scattered on the snow.” The words “sunflower”, “seed”, “scattered”, “snow” begin with the consonant “s.” She also uses the words “bits” and “bread.”

Assonance

It is the poetic technique of repeating the same vowel sound of words on a line, in order to create a pleasing sound. A vowel is “a, e,i,o, u.” A poet can use long vowels, such as “o” in snow, or use short vowels, such as “u” in lunch. Here is another example of assonance from Jane Kenyon’s poem This Morning: The cats doze near the snow. The words “doze” and “snow” have the same vowel sound. Onomatopoeia
It is the poetic technique of using words that sound like the words they mean. Examples: whir, buzz, moo, thud, crackle, and so on. Poets use these poetic devices less frequently than alliteration or assonance. Example: Under the light of the stars, we roasted hotdogs over a crackling fire.

Rhyme

It is the repetition of the same sound of words in a poem. Three popular types of rhymes are slant or off rhyme, internal rhyme, and end rhyme.

Slant Rhyme or imperfect rhyme
A poetic technique that creates near rhyme or off-rhyme. Emile Dickinson was the first modern poet to use this technique. The poet selects words that have the same consonant sounds and different vowels (e.g. cap and cup), and places them close together on a line. The poet can also select words with the same vowel sound (e.g. talk and walk; snug as a gun) and different constants, and place them close together on a line.

Internal Rhyme
A poetic technique in which one word rhymes with another word on a line. This is a popular type of rhyme for writing free verse.

Example: We talked and walked along the beach.

End Rhyme
A poetic technique in which the poet rhymes the final syllables of words and places them at the end of lines. Here is an example for Robert Frost’s Dust of Snow:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

You can see how “crow and snow” rhyme, and how “me” and “tree” rhyme.

If you intend to use rhyme in free verse, use it selectively. A good rhyme doesn’t make the reader think “here’s a rhyme.” Instead “good rhyming is a feat of skill with words.” (Western Wind, Page 177) Often, when two words rhyme, the meaning of these two words interact to create something different.

Free verse poetry does not have to adhere to a particular rhyme scheme, such as “ABAB,” which means that lines 1 and 3 rhyme and lines 2 and 4 rhyme. In fact, many free verse poems have no rhyme at all. And yet, poets use rhyme on occasion.

Repetition

It is a poetic technique in which the poet repeat words or phrases in a poem. The poet can repeat words or phrase at the beginning of lines, at the end of lines, in the middle of lines. Repetition is a way to create emphasis. It is a way to create energy. It is a way to draw attention to an idea. It is a way to echo the sound of words.

Poets use two types of repetition: Anaphora and repetend.

Anaphora
The poet repeats the opening words or phrase at the beginning of two or more lines. Here is an example from Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes:

When death comes like a hungry bear in autumn….
When death comes like the measle-pox….
When death comes like an iceberg between the shoulder blades…

Repetend
The poet repeats words or phrases at different locations in a stanza or poem. Repeating a word or phrase gabs the reader’s attention. It is a way to add emphasis to an action, person, place, thing, event, experience.

For instance, James Fenton writes in the poem “In Paris With You.”
…I’m one of your talking wounded. I’m a hostage. I’m wounded…I’ve been bamboozled…I admit I’m..

See how Mary Oliver uses repetition to write in the poem, Spring,:

My life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness…

Poet, Debra Spencer, uses the device of repetend in “The Discover of Sex”:

We try to be discreet standing in the dark
hallway by the front door. He gets his hands
up inside the front of my shirt and I put mine
down the inside the back of his jeans. We are crazy
for skin, each other’s skin, warm silky skin…

Learning How to Use Sound Devices

You can get into the habit of using sound devices–such as alliteration, or assonance, or repetition ——by learning how they are used and by practising how to use them. Here’s how: On a daily basis, open your writing journal and use these sound devices to describe the things you see, hear, feel, smell, touch, remember. For instance, suppose you passed a stinking sewer during your day, you could write: I strolled past the stinking sewer and wondered where the stench started. (Example of using alliteration)

As well, when reading poetry, short story, essay, or article that you feel is well written, analyze the piece of writing for these poetic device of sound. Answer the question: What poetic devices did the author or poet use to create such a pleasing sound?

How should you add sound effects your own free verse poetry? Some poets compose word by word. Other poets compose line by line. Many write out the entire poem, and then add sound effects during revision. I recommend that you write the first draft, and then revise for alliteration, assonance, repetition. If you also desire to create a few rhymes, add them.

Free verse poetry doesn’t require you use alliteration, assonance, rhyme, repetition. However, if you read the free verse poetry of great poets, such as Mary Oliver, you’ll quickly discover that these poets use these poetic techniques to construct memorable poems, poems that have deep meaning and pleasurable sound when read aloud.

Resources

For additional information on alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, repetition, rhyme, read the following:

  • Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor
  • The Poets Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  •  Creating Poetry by John Drury
  • The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes
  •  Western Wind by David Mason and John Frederick Nims

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