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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
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.”
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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
By Dave Hood
The most important sentence is often the first one. It is often called the hook or lead. If it doesn’t inspire the reader to proceed to the second sentence, and then the third….your personal essay, or memoir, or any other form of creative writing is dead. That is what William Zinsser tells us in “On Writing Well”, a how-to guide for writing creative nonfiction.
Your opening must capture the reader’s attention and motivate them to read your entire piece of writing. You do this by writing a compelling lead, opening, or entry point.
There are many ways to create an entry point, or lead, or beginning for a piece of creative nonfiction. One way is to just begin “telling the story.” Sometimes writers begin with a “quotation” or “interesting fact.” Another way is to ask a question. For instance: More than 20 million people have purchased Fifty Shades of Gray. What does this suggest about women?
And once you’ve written your piece of creative nonfiction, you must end with a bang. Otherwise, the reader is inclined to be disappointed. The lousy ending is like a film that ends poorly. And so, you’ll want to end with a one final point, which the reader can take away and ponder.
In this article, I’ll discuss the following:
- How to write an opening or lead or entry point into a story
- How to end a piece of creative nonfiction
Writing an Opening
As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to begin writing a piece of creative nonfiction. Some writers begin by telling a story. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote “Slackers” for the New Yorker magazine. (July 30th, 2012)
William Zinsser, author of the splendid writing-advice book, “On Writing Well”, identifies a few other ways. You can begin with:
- A question
- A quotation
- A fascinating fact
- An Anecdote
Laurie Oliver, author of the how-to book, “The Story Within,” identifies many other ways to begin:
- With a list
- With a memory
- With a scene
- With a reminiscence
- With a reflection
- With an assertion
- With a diagnosis
- With a general statement
One of the simplest ways to begin is by asking a question. For instance, what made Andy Warhol a fascinating artist? What was his contribution to the world of art?
Another easy way to begin is with a list. For example, here are the reasons why I write…
Another is to begin with a quotation. For instance, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”—St. Augustine.
An interesting fact can also introduce a good piece of creative writing. Writer David Remnick, the author of the profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (July 30th, 2012) begins with an interesting fact:
Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around New Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles.
Usually, the form of creative nonfiction you are sitting down to write will define the how to begin. For instance, a personal-narrative essay will usually begin at the beginning of the story. A meditative essay often begins with a question. For instance, What is the meaning of life? A travel essay can begin with a memorable scene. A literary journalism essay often begins with an interesting fact, generalization, assertion.
Writing the Ending
Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening. You need to know when to end and how to end a story. You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening. That is what William Zinsser tells us. There are several ways to end. The personal narrative usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. Some writer’s end by referring back to the beginning of the story. If your entry point into the essay is a question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quote.
In the essay, “Slackers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes. He was back on the track nine days later.
David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”
Other ways to end are to make a judgement or recommendation or share an insight.
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:
- “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
- “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
- “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise.”
- “What usually works best is a quotation.”
Zinsser also tells us not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”
Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.
There are no rules on how to end, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Whatever methods you choose, be sure to capture your reader’s attention when you begin. A good beginning draws your readers into the writing like a magnet. And end your work with some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
By Dave Hood
Suppose you have an interesting idea for a short story, have worked the setting, plot, main character, but you’re not sure how to begin.
In this post, I will explain how to go about writing a beginning for a short story. I will cover the following:
- Suggestions on how to begin a short story
- Questions to answer before writing the opening
- How to open a short story
Suggestions on How to Begin
Jack London begins his amazing short story “To Build A Fire” as follows: “Day had broken cold and grey, exceedingly cold and grey, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little travelled trail led….”
William Faulkner begins his memorable short story “A Rose for Emily” as follows: When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to the funeral.”
Susan Minot begins her realist short story “Lust” as follows: “Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude.”
Tom Franklin begins his short story, one based on a fantastical adventure called “Alaska as follows: “Our aim was this: Alaska.”
In each of these examples, the author has created an interesting opening, one that captures the reader’s attention, inspires the reader to read on, turn the page. Each of these openings asks a question: Why?. Each of these openings stirs curiosity in the reader.
Your opening must grab the reader’s attention. Therefore, you will need an interesting narrative hook to inspire the reader to read your story. You will need an interesting first few sentences, words that capture the imagination of the reader. If your opening is dull, the reader will start to believe that your short story is dull. You risk losing the attention of the reader, who might put down the short story, never read it again.
Questions to Answer before Writing an Opening
Before you write the opening for your short story, you might want to answer the following questions:
- Where does the story take place? It is the setting of your story.
- What is the story about? You will need to understand the inciting incident, conflict, series of causal events that follow.
- Who is the story about? You will need to know who your character is—not only his or her name, but his personality, likes and dislikes, flaws.
- Why does the story take place? You will need to know what motives or desires compel the main character to take action, work toward achieving some particular goal or end.
- When does the story take place? In the city, country? Present day? Bygone era? Historical period?
Once you have answered these questions, you will have a better idea how you want to write the opening.
Remember, though, there are no rules for writing fiction. There are just suggestions, principles, and techniques. In the end, when and how you write the opening for a short story is your own decision. But your opening must be interesting—and must capture the imagination of the reader, inspire the reader to turn the page, and read your short story.
How to Write an Opening?
There have been many books on the craft of fiction, which explain how to write an opening for a short story. In this section, I have used the suggestions of author Josip Novakovich who has an informative book called “Fiction Writer’s Workshop.” He states that there are many ways to write an opening. Here are a few ways to open a short story:
- Introduce the setting. It is the time, place, and context of your short story. Setting sets the stage and provides a backdrop to your story.
- Begin by introducing the need or want or desire of the main character.
- Start your short story with action. Describe a scene in which the main character takes action. Remember to “show, not tell” your reader.
- Begin your story with a brief character portrait. Describe the features and attributes that are most significant to provide the reader with a sense of who is the character. Good fiction is about memorable characters, characters that are interesting.
- Pose a question to the reader. You can often generate a question indirectly. The obvious question is often “why?” Why did the inciting incident, the main event, take place?
- Begin with a memorable scene. Remember, a scene includes setting, vivid details, often dialogue, and action. Be sure to “show, and not tell” your reader.
- Opening your short story by revealing the thoughts and/or feelings of the main character.
In this post, I have provided you with a few suggestions on how to write the beginning for a short story. You should read the stories of Chekhov, Hemingway, Carver, Munro, and many others to learn how they begin short stories. A good place to start is by reading “The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.” You can also read “The Art of the Short Story”, another anthology, by Gioia and Gwyn. (You can purchase these anthologies at Chapters or Amazon.)You should also read “Reading like a Writer” by Francis Prose, “The Art of Fiction” by John Gardner, and “Writing Fiction” by Janet Burroway. Each of these books explains how to go about writing short fiction or a novel.
Remember, there are no rules for writing an opening. However, there are certain acceptable conventions, ways you can begin a story. Learn them, use one of them to write the opening for your short story.
In the last post, I defined the personal essay. In this post, I explain how to structure your personal essay. Remember that there are two types of personal essays. The first is a personal narrative in which you tell a story about an event or experience that had significant meaning to you, and resulted in a lesson that you learned. The second type is a personal opinion about a topic or issue that is of interest or importance to you.
There is no one method of structuring a personal essay. However, your essay does require a beginning, middle, and end. After you have decided on a topic and determined what you are going to say, you can organize/structure your personal essay. Here is how:
Introduction or Lead
The introduction includes a hook that captures the reader’s attention, tells the reader what your personal essay is about, and why he/she should read your personal essay.
1. The hook: This is a sentence or more that grabs the reader’s attention. It can be a:
- Personal anecdote
- Controversial statement
- Fact or statistic
2. Your introduction also needs to introduce your personal experience or topic and how it is important to you.
If you are writing a personal narrative, the body of your essay should include several paragraphs that narrate your story. You can include the following:
- Thoughts, feelings, opinion
- Scene building
If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your body paragraphs will explain the problems or the issue, state the facts provide evidence, and perhaps possible solutions.
Whether you write a personal narrative or a personal opinion piece, each paragraph should include:
- A topical sentence that introduces the paragraph.
- Support for the topical sentence. Each supporting sentence must relate to the topical sentence.
- Transitional words between sentence and paragraphs.
Conclusion or Ending
In On Writing Well, author William Zinsser states that “the perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right…For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when your ready to stop, stop.”
If you are writing a personal narrative, your conclusion should include the following:
- What you learned from the experience or the personal meaning of the experience
- A main point. It should answer the question “So what?” This makes your personal experience relevant to your reader.
- You personal experience must provide a universal truth. That is why including the lesson that you learned or the insight you gained is important. The universal truth allows your readers to learn from your experience.
Give your readers a reason why your personal essay is relevant to his or her life by providing a universal truth. For instance, “Crime doesn’t pay.”
If you are writing a personal opinion piece, your conclusion can include your recommendations, judgment, prediction, warning, final opinion or final thought. The key is to leave your reader with one final point to ponder.
Zinsser writes in On Writing Well: “It takes just a few sentences to wrap things up. Ideally they should encapsulate the idea of the piece and concludes with a sentence that jolts us with its fitness or unexpectedness.”
In summary, your personal essay must begin with a hook that inspires your readers to read your essay, and you must introduce your topic. In the middle, tell your story or provide support for your views on a topic. You can expand on your personal essay with evidence, action, dialogue, scene-building, and so forth. In your conclusion, you reveal the lesson that you learned from the experience or make your final, important point. Throughout the personal essay, you weave your theme.
In the next post, I will explain the techniques for writing a personal essay.