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Aug 6 2013
By Dave Hood
Instead of writing a personal essay or memoir, creative nonfiction writers often craft literary journalism essays and reviews about popular culture, including film, art, photography, famous people, fashion, and music. For instance, the popular magazine, “The New Yorker,” publishes literary journalism essays as profiles of public figures, perspectives on current events, essays on topics in the news, as well as film, music, and book reviews. “Harper’s” and “The Atlantic” are other magazine that publishes literary journalism essays. As well, many literary journals publish literary journalism essays, including Tin House, Epiphany, Witness.
The literary journalistic essay, as it applies to writing about popular culture, involves writing true stories about people, places, events, film, books, music, photography, art, and so forth. Writers craft this category of essay by completing research and then writing the narrative using the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices. Writers usually narrate the story from the third person POV (“he/she”) and include scene, summary, and personal reflection.
Sometimes a creative nonfiction writer will play the part of a reviewer or critic, reviewing a film, concert, painting, or book. This review will include a description or summary, share the pros and cons, provide opinion and recommendation. For instance, a writer might write a literary review of a book that’s just been published, and the reader will use the review to decide whether to purchase the book.
The purpose of the literary journalistic essay and review of pop culture are always to inform, educate, and entertain readers.
In this article, I’ll discuss popular culture as it applies to writing literary journalism essays and reviews. The following will be covered:
• Defining popular culture
• Perspectives for writing about popular culture
• The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
• Gathering material by completing research
• Writing a review
• Writing a literary journalistic essay
• Tips for writing about popular culture
• Additional reading
Defining Popular Culture
There are many definitions of popular culture. Essentially, popular culture refers to the contemporary popular culture of a particular society, such as Western pop culture. It deals with the contemporary aspects of film, photography, art, sculpture, painting, cuisine, genre fiction, poetry, music, fashion, trends, fads, influential people, such as political leaders, rock stars, sports heroes, Hollywood starlets, video games, anything to do with the current popular culture.
From pop culture, we define our tastes, likes and dislikes, identities, fashion, leisure time, beliefs, values, norms, and much more. Pop culture includes many institutions, such as Hollywood, where many motion pictures are produced. An important element of pop culture is the mass media: television, radio, books, magazines, newspapers, film, Internet. These institutions create brands that people can embrace and relate to. A particular “brand” can become an emblem of pop culture. For instance, anything Apple is now part of the pop culture of contemporary society in 2013. These institutions also shape our values, views, opinions, beliefs, and behaviour.
The physical artifacts of an era are an aspect of popular culture. Digital technologies play an important role in defining our current popular culture. Most people own either a smart phone, tablet, such as iPad, or digital music play, like the iTouch. Most people surf the Internet for work, or entertainment, or leisure. Many people use the computer to access social media, such as Facebook, to connect with friends and share their lives. Many use the computer to access YouTube to watch and post videos and Flickr to view and post photographs. It seems that young people now spend more leisure time surfing the web, text messaging, visiting Facebook than watching television. The masses have embraced digital photography, capturing an endless stream of snapshots with their smart phones or point-and-shoot digital cameras. Everyone is now a digital photographer. Digital technologies pervade the popular culture of 2013.
Serendipity often creates pop culture. Fads and trends happen by accident or chance. For instance, in the late 60s and 70s, long hair was fashionable for men. Now many men “crop” their hair as though they are enrolled in the army. Men and women adorn their bodies with a coloured tattoos. These trends arrived by accident, pure chance. At some point, the trends will depart, and be replaced by something new.
Influential people, such as Michael Jackson, Steve Jobs, or Bono of U2 also create popular culture, and shape how we dress, think, and act. For instance, Steve Jobs was the “mastermind” of the digital technologies which pervade contemporary life, such as iPad, iPhone, and iTouch.
Any definition of popular culture most include Zeitgeist. It is a German word, which means “the spirit of the age” or “spirit of the time”, and refers to the cultural, political, ethical, intellectual, spiritual climate of a culture during a specific era or time frame. The spirit of a particular era will include the shared views, shared attitudes, shared feelings, shared tastes, shared morality, and shared preferences toward war and technology, political movements and religion, economic conditions and types of work, new scientific discovers, or anything that is part of society.
Think of zeitgeist as the “collective consciousness” of a particular generation. To understand it, you’ll have to conduct research on the Internet and in the library, uncovering the significant events and people and artifacts. Then you’ll have to analyze this popular culture and write the essay, providing examples, which illustrate the idea of collective consciousness. For instance, a decade from now, people will look back and see that digital technologies, such as the iPhone, iPad, Internet, social media, were important aspects of our collective consciousness.
To assist you understanding the “spirit of the time,” use the Google Search called Google Zeitgeist . It will tell you what is on the minds of people. For instance, in 2010, according to Google Zeitgeist, the iPad, Master Chef, Justin Bieber, were some of the most popular searches, and on the minds of millions of people around the world. You might then ask: Is there a spirit of hope or hopelessness, progress or regression, optimism or cynicism, alienation or inclusion?
Perspectives for Writing about Popular Culture
When writing a literary journalistic essay, writers use popular culture in several ways: They use popular culture to provide context to a story. They write as subject matter experts on some feature of popular culture, or as a witnesses to some aspect of popular culture, such as film, art, photography. Play the role of reviewer and write reviews on books, film, music, art, theatre, and more.
Pop culture can provide context to personal narrative or literary journalism essay. Often when writers craft essays that include setting, they allude to the music, film, fashion, values, beliefs of the time period. This provides context to the story. How does a writer find out what happened twenty or thirty years ago? Writers can use a timeline, which shows the significant events, popular culture, and influential people for a particular year. A good website to find context for a true story is http://www.history central.com
The writer, often a subject matter expert, writes a commentary or opinion on some an entertainment personality, film, music concert, event, issue.
The writer might write as a witness. For instance, the writer might craft a personal narrative about a visiting to the Art Gallery, such as the Museum of Modern Art or attending the Bruce Springsteen concert, or what it feels like to cheer for a losing football team, such as the Buffalo Bills.
The writer can play the role of reviewer or critic. For instance, experts in film write film reviews, ,experts in music write music reviews, experts on art write literary journalistic essays about painting, sculpture, photography. To review some “art form,” the reviewer must experience the art. For instance, if the writer is writing a book review, the writer must first read the book. If the writer is writing a film review, the writer must first watch the film. If the writer is writing a review on some painting or sculpture or installation or photograph, the writer must first attend the exhibition.
The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
Writing about pop culture requires that you follow the advice of Lee Gutkind’s “Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction:” He suggests the following:
• Write about real life, real people, actual events, real art forms, and actual places.
• Complete research, collecting facts from the library, interviewing experts, reading essays on the Internet, watching television or film, listening to music, immersing yourself in the “art form.”
• Write an essay or review about some feature of popular culture. Use immersion and other tools of research, facts, and fact checking to write the essay or review.
• Include personal reflection. Share your personal thoughts, feelings, perspectives about popular culture.
• Read widely and deeply. Read books, magazines, articles, essays, commentary, Internet blogs to understand to the topic, issue, event, or person.
Gathering Material to Write the Literary Journalistic Essay
If you intend to write about pop culture, you must stay informed and conduct research whenever you have a topic to write about.
Here are a few publications that will help you learn about pop culture and stay informed:
• Music. If you intend to write about the music scene, including singers, song writers, artists, bands, rock, pop, soul, rap, jazz, begin by reading “Rolling Stone” magazine.
• Art. If you desire to learn about modern or contemporary art and artists, read “Canadian Art”, “Art in America,” and “Artnews.”
• Film. If you want to learn and write about film, turn the pages of “Sight and Sound” magazine.
• Fashion. If you desire to become an expert on fashion, read “Vogue” magazine (for women) or “GQ” magazine (for men).
• General entertainment news. Stay informed by reading “Entertainment Weekly” and “The New Yorker” magazine, and by reading the entertainment section of your newspaper.
• Literary journals. These are specialized publications, illustrating the best of some an art form. For instance, to read short fiction and poetry, read the journals Granta, Epiphany, Witness, Tin House.
A literary journalism essay is based on facts, gathered from research. Writers can use different methods of research, including:
1. Interview subject matter experts. Contact an expert and interview them. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
2. Immerse yourself in the story. Attend a music concert, or watch the film, visit the art gallery, and then make notes.
3. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
4. Use the Internet. Conduct a search of your topic using Google search, to learn what has been written on the subject and where there are books, magazines, journals, subject matter experts.
5. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.
Writing a Review
Before writing a review, you should first experience the art form, such as viewing the painting or seeing the film. You should also have a good understanding of the genre. For instance, if you`re going to write a film review, you should have a good understanding of movie terms, concepts, film making techniques, movie stars, and history of film. Writer William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” provides some suggestions for completing a review:
1. Love the art form or medium you are reviewing. In other words, if you don`t like film, be sure not to write a review. It will be tainted.
2. Don`t tell the readers everything. For instance, if you`re writing a book review, don`t tell the readers the ending. Provide them with only enough detail to convince them to read or ignore the book.
3. Don`t use adjectives to exaggerate your impression of the art form
4. Use a minimal writing style to express what you think and observe.
As well, when writing a review, do the following:
• Summarize what you observed, heard, or experienced with your senses.
• Share pros and cons.
• Give you opinion. Tell readers whether you like it.
• Make a recommendation. Should the audience see the film or read the book or visit the art exhibition.
Writing a Book Review
There are many ways to write a book review. Just check out the Globe & Mail or The New York Times, and you will see that each newspaper includes them. Lovers of books desire to read them. All book reviews should include a summary of the book, identify the book’s strengths and weaknesses, specify the publishing information (title, author, page count, price), and determine whether the reader ought to read the book. Here is one method you can use to write a book review:
Before Reading the Book
Before reading, scan the book and make notes of the following:
• Title. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Preface. Does it tell you the purpose of the book?
• Table of Contents. Does it indicate what the book is about?
• Glossary. Does the book include a glossary? Does it appear useful?
• Index. Does the book include an index? Is it useful?
After scanning through the book, jot down your impressions. Next, research the author to find out what his/her biases, views, expertise, and other books he/she has written.
Reading the Book
While reading the book, make notes on the following:
• Your impressions
• Author’s argument
• Author’s main points
• Facts and evidence
• Topics covered
• Strengths and weaknesses
Writing the Book Review
Your first paragraph needs a hook, which grabs your reader’s attention. You should also include the name of the author and title of the book. The body of your review requires a summary and should identify some of the most important strengths and weaknesses of the book. You should conclude with a recommendation.
Your book review also requires the following publishing information:
• Title of the book
• Name of the author
• Name of the publisher
• Page count
• Price of the book
Most book reviews include information about the author, such as the author’s views and biases, the author’s expertise on the subject, other books that the author has written. A good book review identifies the types of readers who will enjoy reading the book, and it indicates whether the information in the book is useful to the reader. Many good book reviews also state whether the book expands on the existing body of knowledge.
Writing the Literary Journalistic Essay
Writing about popular culture requires that you determine your approach. Are you writing as a witness? Are you writing as an expert? Or do you only want to use popular culture to provide context to a personal narrative essay or literary journalistic essay? Or are you writing about popular culture as a reviewer? Follow these suggestions:
Don’t use jargon or clichés. Use familiar instead of unfamiliar words and simple rather than fancy words. As well, use action verbs and concrete nouns.
Elements of Fiction
All stories unfold in a particular setting. Include the setting details— time and place and context.
When you narrate a true story, use a narrative arc. It includes:
• Inciting incident
• Conflict, either internal or external
• Turning point or climax
• Resolution. End of the story.
If you are writing a profile on a person, develop the profile by describing the person’s appearance, action and reaction, and by using dialogue. Always answer the question: Who is this person?
Point of View
Write the literary journalistic essay on popular culture using either the first person POV (“I”) or the third person POV (“he”/”she”).
Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection
If you’re writing a narrative, write one or more scenes (showing the reader what happened) to show what happens. A scene includes setting details, action, dialogue, POV, and sensory details. Use summary to explain and tell readers background information. As well, use personal reflection to share your impressions and emotional truth (How does it feel to you?).
Use various poetic devices to write your literary journalism essay, including:
To reconstruct setting and events and impressions of people, use sensor details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.
Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.
Facts not Fiction
When writing true stories of popular culture or people of popular culture, don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, don’t add any facts without first completing fact-checking.
Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).
Tips for Writing about Popular Culture
Popular culture is never static. It is always evolving. New things are continuously being introduced, such as film, music, art, and technologies. And so, to write about popular culture, you must stay informed. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Schedule a “Creative Date” each month. Examples: Visit the art gallery, go to a concert, buy tickets to watch a movie.
2. Stay informed. Read the entertainment section of the newspaper to find out what is going on in your city or town; read pop-culture magazines, such as “Entertainment Weekly”; watch the news and listen to the radio; read articles on the Internet, including the blogs and websites; watch YouTube videos and connect to Facebook and other social media.
3. Keep a writing journal. Make regular entries about pop culture in a writing journal.
4. Become and expert. Enroll in a photography, art, poetry, film study, music course.
5. Consider writing a speculative narrative. For instance, you might see a piece of art in a gallery, and then write a description using sensory details, and then rely on your imagination to determine the meaning of the art.
6. Remain aware of the fads and trends. Regularly, Ask yourself: What are the fads? Trends? What’s popular in your culture? How does film, fashion, music, art influence you? How have books influenced your life? How has the smartphone, tablet, digital music player, or digital camera altered your lifestyle?
7. Make popular culture part of your life. Immerse yourself in film, art, literature, photography, music, and you will see view the world from a different perspective, a viewpoint that will enable you to write about popular culture.
For addition information about learning creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
• Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second edition by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
• Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
• You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
• The Best American Essays Series 2012, edited by David Brooks and Robert Atwan
• The New Yorker magazine
Monday July 22, 2013
By Dave Hood
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. It is based on images and ideas of a particular theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts a lyrical essay about pain called “The Pain Scale,” which has appeared in Harper’s magazine. The writer of the literary essay constructs images with sensory details. The writer also uses poetic language, such as alliteration and assonance. The lyrical essay combines both prose and poetry, sometimes found objects of writing to create the lyrical essay. The essay is created with fragments of details, and each fragmented is separated with white space, asterisk, or number. The writer presents questions and relies on the reader to provide the answers. The lyrical essay encourages the reader to ponder and meditate while reading the essay.
In this article, I will discuss the lyrical essay. The following will be covered:
• Definition and features of the lyrical essay
• Categories of lyrical essays-prose poem, braided essay, collage, and “hermit crab” essay
• Techniques for writing the lyrical essay
• Creative Writing Style
• Additional reading
Definition of a Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a type of personal essay that combines both prose and poetry. It is often crafted like a prose poem. The writer uses a series of image or ideas, not narrative or argument, to craft the essay. The image can be of a person, place, thing, or object. The idea can be anything. The writer attempts to recreate the experience and evoke emotion in the reader by using sensory details, description that expresses what the writer sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, and feels. The lyrical essay is not organized as a narrative, with one event unfolding after the next. Nor is it organized in chronological order. Instead the writer creates a series of fragmented images using poetic language, such as alliteration, assonance, internal rhyme, and rhythm.
In 1997, The Seneca Review created the lyrical essay. This literary journal, publishing twice a year, defines the literary essay as follows:
• Combines prose and poetry
• Constructed from a distillation of ideas
• Mentions but doesn’t expound
• Suggestive but not exhaustive
• Relies on associations, imagery, and connotation
• Makes reference to other genres, such as film, music, literature
• Arranged in fragments as a mosaic
• Based on stories that are metaphors
• Based on intimate voice
• Crafted with lyrical language
The lyrical essay is usually fragmented. The writer creates a series of images using sensory details. Each image represents a fragment of detail, which are separated by double spaces, asterisk, or numbers. It is also suggestive. The writer implicitly suggests meaning. It is meditative. The reader ponders the words and emotion expressed in those words. It is often inconclusive. The writer provides no final point for the reader to take away. If you are interested in reading examples of a lyrical essay, visit The Seneca Review.
Categories of the Lyrical Essay
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, in “Tell IT Slant,” identify four categories of lyrical essay:
• The prose poem or flash nonfiction essay
• The collage essay
• The braided essay
• The “Hermit Crab” essay
The Prose Poem. It is crafted like prose but reads like a poem. It is written in sentences, not verse. The writer uses poetic devices, such as imagery, symbolism, simile, metaphor to create a prose poem of one or more paragraphs. The writer also uses literary prose by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
The Collage Essay. Like the art collage, the collage of a lyrical essay is based on a collection of fragments from different sources. For instance, prose, poetry, quotation might be combined. The use of juxtaposition is used. The writer separates each section with white space, an asterisk, subtitles, epigraph.
The Braided Essay. It relies on the lyrical examination of a particular topic. The writer uses fragments of detail from different sources . According to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant”, the writer fragments the essay into separate pieces that repeat throughout the essay. There is a weaving of different ideas, such as quotations, descriptions, facts, lists, poet language, imagery. This essay also allows for an outside voice to provide details, along with the writer’s voice and experiences. The purpose of the outside voice is to shadow the writers voice, according to Brenda Miller in “Tell IT Slant.”
The “Hermit Crab” Essay. This type of lyrical essay is created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives the life within the shell of another mollusk or snail. It borrows from fiction, poetry, description, personal narrative, instructions, questions and answers, diary, itinerary, table of contents, songs, recipes, collection of favorite CDs, that are used as a shell to construct something new.
For additional information about the lyrical essay, you can read “Tell It Slant”, a short text on writing creative nonfiction, focusing on the personal essay, and its various subgenres. To read examples of the lyrical essay, visit the Seneca Review.
The lyrical essay has these features:
1. The writer crafts sentences that have rhythm, like a prose poem. Paces and stressed syllables determine rhythm. Iambic pentameter is the most common type of rhythm. It is based on a pattern of five iambic feet. Yet, writers often just count the number of stressed syllables in a line to determine the rhythmic structure of their prose. A short sentence speeds up the pace. A long sentence slows down the pace.
2. The writer creates lyrical prose that sound musical by using alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme.
3. The writer constructs the essay with fragments of detail. Each fragment is separated by white space, asterisk, title, or number.
4. The essay is often inclusive. Instead the writer focuses on evoking emotion in the reader, and the reader must draw his or her own conclusion.
Writers who have popularized the lyrical essay are:
• Eula Biss, author of “No Man’s Land” and many lyrical essays, including “The Pain Scale” which can be read online. (Conduct a Google Search)
• David Shields, author of the book “Reality Hunger.”
• John D’Agata, author of the book “The Lifespan of Fact”
• The Seneca Review, a literary journal that publishes lyrical essays.
Techniques for Crafting the Lyrical Essay
The lyrical essay is a subgenre of the personal essay. The writer creates the essay in prose using lyrical language. As well the writer uses an intimate voice, often by using the first person POV (I). Writers can use the following techniques to create a lyrical essay:
• Poetic language. The writer relies on alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme. Sometimes the writer will create fragments of prose poetry.
• Figurative language. The writer make comparisons with metaphor and simile.
• Imagery. The writer creates images of people, places, things, objects, ideas with sensory details, prose that appeal to the writer’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing.
• Connotation. The writer expresses meaning through connotation, not explicit expression of the details.
• Questions. The writer poses questions to the reader who must answer them.
• Juxtaposition. The writer often juxtaposes different fragments of detail, which have implied meaning.
• Association. The writer expresses meaning through association of different things by using simile and metaphor.
• Prose and poetry. The writer crafts sentences in prose using poetic language and rhythm.
• Reference. The lyrical essay often mentions something without elaborating.
• Rhythm. The writer creates emotion by using rhythmic prose.
• Fragmented. White space or an asterisk or subtitles or epigraph are used by the writer to separate each sections of the essay.
• Intimate POV. The writer often write in the first person POV (I) and shares intimate details, such as emotional truth. It answers the question: Who does it feel?
• Inconclusive ending. The lyrical essay often ends without answering the questions posed in the essay.
The writer creates a lyrical essay based on some theme. For instance, Eula Biss crafts an essay on “The Pain Scale.” The themes are pain and how to measure pain. She crafts this lyrical essay by using poetic language and rhythmic sentences. She writers in the first person POV (I) and feelings of emotion. She writes fragments of detail, and each fragmented is separated by white space or asterisk or number. The meaning is constructed by the accumulation of detail.
Creative Writing Style
To write the lyrical essay, use the following writing style:
1. Tone. A friendly and conversational tone.
2. Word choice. Fresh and original, short rather than long, familiar instead of unfamiliar words.
3. Lyrical language. Use of alliteration and assonance and rhythm.
4. Sentence variety. Use of a variety of sentence patterns, such as the balanced sentence, the cumulative sentence, and the periodic sentence.
5. Intimate POV. Use of first person POV (I) and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings and reflections.
To learn more about writing the lyrical essay, read the following:
• Hall of Fame by John D’Agata
• Plain Water by Anne Carson
• The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate
• Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
• Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
• Words Overflown by Stars, Edited by David Jauss
• The Seneca Review (http://www.hws.edu/academics/senecareview/lyricessay.aspx )
• “Essaying the Thing: An Imagist Approach to the Lyrical Essay” by Joey Franklin. (The Writer’s Chronicle magazine, September 2012)
• Reality Hunger by David Shields
• No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
• The Life Span of Fact by John D’Agasta
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
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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
Most modern and contemporary poets write free verse poetry. Unlike traditional poetry, which is based on a particular metrical pattern and often a rhyme scheme, the free verse poet writes poetry without rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Read any collection of modern or contemporary poetry, and you’ll quickly discover that the poets have composed their poetry as free verse.
Many contemporary poets have written memorable free verse poetry–poems that will stand the test of time. A century from now, readers will view these free verse poems as works of art. Read the poetry of the poet laureates, such as Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Louise Gluck, Rita Dove, and you’ll experience something delightful, something memorable. These poets have written poems about anything you can think of, such as war, happiness, death, misery. Here’s a good free verse poem by poet laureate Rita Dove called “Golden Oldie:”
I made it home early, only to get
stalled in the driveway, swaying
at the wheel like the blind pianist caught in tune
meant for more than two hands playing.
The words were easy, crooned
by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover
a pain majestic enough
to live by. I turned the air-conditioning off,
leaned back to float on a film of sweat,
and listened to the sentiment:
Baby, where did our love go?-a lament
I greedily took in
without a clue who my lover
might be, or where to start looking.
She writes in the first person, shares an anecdote or story, uses the poetic device of allusion, creates a conversational tone with language that all readers can understand. At the end, she shares a universal truth about youth. This poem has meaning. Good free verse poetry has meaning, like an illuminating quotation by a famous person.
In this article, I’ll provide you with an overview of free verse poetry. The following will be covered:
- Types of free verse
- Building blocks of free verse
- Voice and style of the poet
Types of Free Verse
Free verse poets have written about any subject you can imagine. From love, to hate, to death, to a personal experience, to a fleeting moment. For instance, the poem in the introduction is a narrative. It tells a story. It could also be an anecdote. Once you start reading modern and contemporary poetry, you discover that poets write various types of free verse. Here are some of the most common types:
- Narrative poem. The poet tells a story. Often, there is rising action, climax, and resolution, like a short story. The poet composes the narrative by using simile, metaphor, imagery, vivid description, line breaks, and so forth.
- Prose poem. The poet uses complete sentences and the techniques of poetry, simile, metaphor, imagery, and vivid description. Stanzas become paragraphs. The language of the poem is lyrical.
- Anecdote. The poet describes some incident or experience or event that is humorous or interesting, and ends the poem with some insight. Poets also use anecdotes to illustrate a truth.
- Image poem. The poet writes a poem about an image, and relies on language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing to describe the image. The poet also composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth.
- Meditative poem. The poet begins by describing a scene. This scene triggers a meditation in the mind of the poet. The poet then returns to the initial scene with better understanding or resolution. The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth.
- Lyrical poem. A traditional form adopted by many modern/contemporary poets. The poet writes a poem expressing personal thoughts and feelings about an idea, person, experience. The poet uses imagery and description to create a mood. The poet also uses sound effects to make the poem sound lyrical, like music. These sound effects include alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, internal or end rhyme.
- Confessional poem. A poem that is autobiographical. The poet writes about personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Instead of looking outward, observing the world, and then writing about it, the poet peers inward to the psyche, writes about the world in relation to themselves. The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth. See the poetry of Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jane Kenyon.
- Elegy. A traditional form adopted by some modern/contemporary poets. A poem that laments the death of a loved one, such as a friend. The poet composes the poem using line break, simile, metaphor, and so forth. See “Oh Caption! My Caption” by Walt Whitman and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickenson
Unlike a traditional poem, such as a sonnet or blank verse, where the poet must follow particular rules, such a particular number of lines in a stanza, a particular metrical pattern, and a particular rhyme scheme, the free verse poet can compose a poem in any way he/she desires, without adhering to any rules. However, if the poet aspires to write good poetry, or memorable poetry, or poetry that is worthy of publication, then the poet must follow the conventions and guidelines of free verse poetry. A good free verse poem uses the following building blocks or techniques:
Syntax and grammar. Poets use a variety of syntax, such as fragments, simple sentences, compound sentences, periodic sentences, and parallel structure. They follow the rules of punctuation and the rules of grammar. They use both action verbs and concrete nouns . They write in the active voice instead of the passive voice. (The noun performs the action of the verb.) They use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. (to avoid wordiness and repeating an idea that can be presented by the right verb or right noun.)
Line breaks and Line length. Poets use line breaks such as white space, enjambment, or end-stop (period or comma) to indicate the reader to pause, to create emphasis, and to create rhythm. They write short lines to speed up the pace, and long lines to slow down the pace.
Figurative Language. Most good free verse poetry includes simile or metaphor. A simile makes a comparison using “like” or “as.” A metaphor makes a comparison with “is” or “of” by stating that one thing is another. Example: She is the devil in disguise. And when required, the poet also includes symbolism and allusion and personification.
Figurative language can make a poem pleasurable to read. It can clarify meaning. It entertains the reader. It turns the ordinary into something meaningful, something memorable. Often an abstract idea can be made concrete to the reader by using similes or metaphors. Example: Love is a drug….We are addicted to love. In the poem, “Golden Oldies”, poet Rita Dove uses the technique of allusion to make reference to pop culture. She writes: “Baby, where did our love go?” It is a famous song by The Supremes, who were a popular singing group in the 60’s and early 70’s.
Appropriate word choice or diction. Free verse poets choose words for their meaning (denotation or dictionary meaning), implied meaning (connotation), and sound (rhyme, alliteration, assonance). Example: The boy sat on the soiled sofa/sipped a cold soda/ read a comic book. Most free verse poets use everyday language, words that you’d here in a conversation. The following poem by Louise Gluck is a good example of how poets can use everyday language to create a powerful poetry:
I was born cautious, under the sign of Taurus.
I grew up on an island, prosperous,
in the second half of the twentieth century;
the shadow of the Holocaust
hardly touched us.
I had a philosophy of love, a philosophy
of religion, both based on
early experience within family.
And if when I wrote I used only a few words
it was because time always seemed to me short
as though it could be stripped away
at any moment.
And my story, in any case, wasn’t unique
though, like everyone else, I had a story,
a point of view.
A few words were all I needed:
nourish, sustain, attack.
Imagery. Good free verse poets use language that appeals to reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. The poet uses imagery to show the reader what happened or what the poet experienced with his/her senses. Imagery brings a person, object, image, moment, experience to life. Imagery recreates what the poet experienced or imagined as a the scene in the mind of the reader. Imagery helps to create “word pictures.”
Symbolism. On occasion, the free verse poet uses symbol, metonymy, or synecdoche. A symbol refers to something other than its literal meaning. Some poets use well-recognized symbols. ( Examples: cross, dove, bible) Others create their own. (A blooming yellow tulip in the garden can be a symbol of birth or springtime.) Metonymy is a figure of speech in which the poet replaces the word of one thing with the word or phrased that is closely associated with it. (Example: Crown instead of Monarch) A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which the poet substitutes the “part for the whole.” This part or attribute or characteristic is used by the poet to refer to the entire person, place, thing, object, and so forth. (Example: The teenager purchased a “set of wheels.” Wheels refer to a car or truck.
Sound Devices. A memorable poem has a pleasing sound when read aloud. This pleasuring sound is created with particular poetic devices, such as alliteration (repetition of consonant sound of two or more words on a line or lines) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds of two or more words on a line or lines). When required, poets also use onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, or end rhyme. Free verse poetry is meant to be read for its meaning and sound. Both invoke an emotional reaction.
Rhythm. A good free verse poem has rhythm or beat. This rhyme is based on the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables on a line. Meter can be part of rhythm. For instance, a poet can include rhythm by using a particular metrical pattern. Though a free verse poem doesn’t have to comply to a metrical pattern, such as iambic pentameter, many modern and contemporary poets rely on “syllabic meter” to create rhythm. For instance, the poetic might create a poem in which each line has the same number of syllables.
Poets also use other techniques, such as parallel structure and repetition, to create rhythm.
Line break is also an important way to create rhythm. The poet can use white space, enjambment, or end-stop, such as a period or coma.
Poets also create rhythm by changing the pace. The poet can speed up or slow down the pace of a poem, make it fast or slow, smooth or interrupted—even irregular by using different lengths of line. A long line slows down the pace, while a short line speeds up the pace. Usually a longer line has more syllables than a short line.
Point of view. Free verse poetry can be written from different poets of view—first person (“I”), second person (“you”), or third person (“he/she”). Before selecting a point of view, the poet should determine how he/she is going to present the poem to the reader. The poet has two choices: First, the poet can turn inward–and then write about thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Secondly, the poet can turn outward—and write about other people, objects, things, events, topics in the world. If the poet turns inward, to the psyche or self, then the poem is usually written in the first person (“I.”) If the poet turns outward—to view the outside world, the poet can still write in the first person. However, usually the poet writes in the third person using (“he/she.”)
Sometimes the poet writes in the second-person point of view using “you.” In this case, the poet is referring directly to the reader. Example: You smoke your cigarette/ You read your paper/You sip your morning coffee/You ponder how another day will unfold/You’ve learned that a day can play out like a football game/ Often you don’t know who will win until the very end.
Sometimes, the poet invents a persona, and then composes a poem as if he were someone else. For instance, the poet might write a poem in the voice of someone dead or alive or famous. Most free verse poems are written in the first-person point of view (“I”), or the third person point of view (“he/she”).
Appealing Voice and Style. Voice and style are used interchangeably. They refer to tone, word choice/diction, and sentence variety. A good poem has a respectful tone, is constructed with everyday language, and a variety of sentence structures, such as fragment, parallel structure, simple sentence, compound sentences, and more. For instance, here is a poem, written by Ted Kooser, that is like a conversation:
Flying at Night
by Ted Kooser
Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on the water. Below us
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death,
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas,
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his.
Voice and Style of the Poet
Whether you write fiction, poetry, personal essays, voice and style refer to the same thing. The most important aspects of style or voice are tone of the writing, word choice, and sentence structure. Every particular writer has a unique voice or style that is expressed on the page. Voice or style is what the readers hears when they read a writer’s work. Style or voice is developed as the writer gains more experience. In other words, the more the poet writes and learns about poetry, the more polished the style. Favorite poets will have a voice you like. Several elements create the poet’s voice or style. These include:
- Subject Matter. The subject you choose to write about will contribute to the voice of your poem. For instance, if you desire to write about grief and death, you’ll probably want to use a serious, respectful, melancholy tone.
- Word Choice. The types of words you choose, the sound of these words, and the meaning of these words will contribute to your voice. A good poet uses everyday language, which can be understood. A good poet also writes poetry that has a pleasing sound when read aloud.
- Sentence Types. The sentence types you use are part of your voice that you express on the page. You can use different types of sentences, such as a fragment, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, fragment, and so forth. A short sentence speeds up the pace, where as a longer sentence slows the pace.
- Grammar. Poets are told to use the active voice, concrete and specific details, concrete nouns, and action verbs. Each contributes to the voice of a poem. You should following these suggestions to help create a pleasing voice.
- Figurative language/Poetic Devices. In part, your style is determined by the poetic devices you use to create your poems. You might use alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia to create a particular sound. You might also use simile, metaphor, imagery, symbolism to create an entertaining poetry and to explain. Many poets prefer particular poetic devices over others. Most good free verse uses simile or metaphor.
- Tone. The tone of the poem is determined by the poet’s attitude toward the reader and the subject. The best tone is friendly, conversational, respectful. Write your poetry as if you’re talking to a friend.
- Point of View. The personal point of view ( “I”) is more intimate. Use it to write about yourself. The third person (“he/she”) provides some narrative distance. Use it write about the world around you.
- Life experience. Every writer is socialized by the world in which he/she lives. Religion, the mass media, education, family, personal experience shape the writers view of the world.
The four most important aspects of developing style are tone, word choice, sentence variety/syntax, and poetic technique.
For more information on writing free verse poetry, 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
By Dave Hood
The beginning of a poem, short story, personal essay, article must arouse readers curiosity and inspire them to read your work. Otherwise, readers will quickly become bored and stop reading.
In the splendid book “On Writing Well,” a text on how to write creative nonfiction, William Zinsser, suggests that when writing creative nonfiction “the most important sentence is the first one. According to Zinsser, a good lead or beginning does the following: It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook. And it tells the reader what the writing is about. It also tells the reader why the piece is important to read.
In this article, I’ll explain what a beginning must accomplish and how to write it. This will apply to poetry, short stories, personal essays, and articles. Keep in mind that for each genre, there are countless ways to begin. And so, I will identify some, but not all, of the most common techniques.
What Must the Beginning Accomplish
Many writers get stuck when they begin writing. Essentially, they don’t know how to write a good opening. I often find it the most difficult part of writing. Frequently, I am unsure about the method to use. Should I begin with a question? Fascinating fact? In the middle of the action? Usually, the type of writing determines how to begin. For instance, to write a meditative essay, I usually begin with a question, and then answer this question in the body of the essay or article.
If you desire to find a way to write an opening, following these suggestions: First, it must introduce the topic you are writing about, whether a poem, short story, personal essay, article. In other words, it must tell the reader what you are writing about–life, death, winter, summer, a person, place, thing, event, experience. Secondly, the beginning must tell the reader why the topic is important. (This does not apply to poetry.) Otherwise, the read might believe that the story or article or essay is not worth reading—It won’t satisfy their informational needs. Thirdly, you must capture the reader’s attention–inspire them to read your piece of writing.
There are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and article. Each of these genres has its own methods. For instance, a narrative poem might begin at the beginning of the story, a short story might begin in the middle of the action, a meditative essay might begin with a question.
Sol Stein who wrote the splendid book, “Stein On writing,” suggests that the first sentence and paragraph must do the following:
- Excite the reader’s curiosity
- Introduce the setting
- Lend resonance to the story
To achieve these purposes, a short story or novel must often begin by shocking, such as someone getting murdered; surprising, such a character doing something strange or bizarre; or sharing something unusual, such as the character making an odd comment. The writer can also share surprise, something unusual, something shocking by beginning the story in the middle of the action, with a scene, with dialogue, and much more.
Here`s how fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, begins his short story, The Veldt:
“George, I wish you`d look at the nursery.”
“What`s wrong with it.”
” I don`t know.”
Here`s how, fiction writer, Raymond Carver begins Cathedral: This blind man, an old friend of my wife, he was on his way to spend the night.
Here`s how writer Adriana Barton begins the article, “The Habits of Resilient People,” in the November 19th edition of the Toronto Globe and mail: Among the thousands of people whose houses were destroyed, some are already bouncing back.
In each of these examples, the writer arouses the curiosity of the reader.
There are no rules about what type of beginning to use. Nor are there any rules how long the beginning should be. Some beginnings are short, only a few sentences. Other beginnings are only a sentence in length. Still, others are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your beginning and the method you use to begin will depend on whether you are writing a poem, short story, novel, personal essay, or article.
How to Write the Beginning
In journalism, many writers use the inverted pyramid. In the opening, they write the lead, followed by important points, and then less important points. The lead includes the conclusion and omits background information and context. This is often confusing for readers.
In creative writing, you don’t use the inverted pyramid to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, and so on. Instead you can use other methods or techniques.
A beginning should tell the reader what the piece of writing is about, why your piece of writing is important to the reader, and inspire the reader to continue reading. Essential, a beginning introduces your writing and gives it focus.
How to Write an Opening for Creative Nonfiction: There are many ways to begin writing a meditative essay, personal essay, or opinion essay. William Zinsser, in “On Writing Well,” identifies a few of them:
- Ask an intriguing question. Begin with a question that answers `What is the article about. `Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment? Basically, you are asking a rhetorical question–because you already know the answers.
- Make a thought-provoking statement. Example: The owners have locked the players out because of “greed.”
- State a compelling or fascinating Fact. This type of beginning shares a provocative fact or figure. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
- Write an anecdote. Write a vignette or story that is related to your topic in the first paragraph. In the second, tie the story or vignette to your topic.
- Use a provocative quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research. Where to find a quotation? The Internet is one place. I like to use “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.”
- Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences. Tell the reader what your article is about, summarizing the main points.
- 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.
There are other ways write an opening for a piece of creative nonfiction, such as an essay. Often a personal-narrative essay, for instance, begins with an angle, or controlling idea that tells the writer how to focus and tells the reader what the personal essay is about. This angle is an approach or perspective. It is a way for the writer to approach the subject, to find a path in. There are many types of angles, such as a contrast of points of view, an unlikely comparison, a dream versus reality, contrast of people or categories.
How to Begin Writing an Opening for a Fictional or True Story: Writer/Instructor Laura Oliver, in her splendid book, “The Story Within,” provides several other suggestions to begin a fictional or true story. Here is what she suggests. You can begin:
- With a list. Example: Here are the reasons why President Obama won the election.
- With a personal reflection. Example: As I recall….
- With a reminiscence. Example: I have fond memories of my childhood.
- With something you didn’t know. Example: Prior to reading the article, I didn’t know how use the comma. This learning experience taught me…………
- With a portrait in words. Example: When I image dad, I see a man who is smiling and laughing…
- With an assertion. Example: I don’t believe that God exists.
- With a mystery. Example: I don’t know how I crashed the car…
Asking Journalistic Questions: You can also begin by asking journalistic questions. You can also use these questions to explore an idea or topic, and to organize your work. Before I write a beginning for a piece of writing, I like to pose and answer these journalistic questions:
Answering these questions often provides me with the answer for how to begin. These answers also tell me how to organize and explore what I will be writing about.
How to Write an Opening for a Poem: There are many ways to begin a free-verse poem. It all depends on the language of poetry you intend to use. If, for instance, you are writing a blank verse poem, your first sentence would require iambic pentameter–five feet of unstressed/stressed units. If you are writing a meditative poem, you might begin with a scene. If you are writing a narrative poem, you might begin with an observation, event, image. Or a provocative comment by the speaker. Here`s how poet, Charles Bukowski begins `The Way it Is Not as follows: “I tell you, I`ve lived with some gorgeous women..” There are countless ways to begin a poem, such as a description of a setting, person, event.
The Epigram: Many writers begin by an epigram. It is a statement or brief saying in prose or poetry, in which there is an apparent contradiction. It might be a very short, satirical, witty poem. It can also be a compelling, provocative, short quotation by some famous person. Example: “What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole, its body brevity, and wit its soul.”(Samuel Coleridge) I have read where writers have used the epigram as an opening for poetry, fiction, personal essay, and articles. The epigram gives a piece of writing some context and helps to introduce the topic.
Final Words: I’ve learned that there are many ways to begin a poem, short story, personal essay, or article. Most often, the genre you are writing and the nature of the piece of writing determines how to begin. Whether you write poetry, short stories, personal essays, or articles, the beginning must grab the reader`s attention and introduce the idea you are writing about. It should also tell the reader why your piece of writing is important to read. The first sentence and first paragraph must surprise, show, or arouse curiosity in the reader, or you risk having have your piece tossed away like an old newspaper.
For more information on how to write a beginning, read the following:
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within by Laura Oliver
- Writing Your Way: Creating A Writing Process that Works for You by Don Fry
Perhaps, you’ve purchased a writing journal and some pens, and have decided to embrace the art and craft of creative writing. Or, you’ve decided to write a poem, short story, personal essay, but you don’t know what to write about. Perhaps, you want to write your life story, but don’t know what to write. There are countless ideas that you can dig up, dust off, and write about. You just have to know where to search.
And once you have an idea to write about, you require a few techniques on how to explore and expand the idea into a poem, short story, personal essay.
You’ll also require a few essential creative-writing techniques to transform the idea into a piece of imaginative or creative writing, something original and authentic, that others will be motivated to read and praise you for. If you are fortunate, you might even be able to publish your work.
In this article, I’ll explain how to find inspiring ideas to write about and how to write about them. The following will be covered:
- Techniques for finding inspiration
- Asking journalistic questions
- Using creative-thinking techniques
- Writing imaginatively or creatively
How to Dig Up Ideas to Write About
As a creative writing, there are countless ideas you can write about. No idea or topic is off limits. You can transform any idea into a poem, short story, personal essay, literary journalistic essay. However, before you can write the draft, you must first find some worthy idea that inspires you to write about. Here are 12 ways to find ideas to write about:
Dreams. A dream can be a source of inspiration. You must be able to recall the content of the dream. So, keep a notebook on your beside table. If you wake up, remembering a dream, write down as much as you recall. I have never written about a dream.
Memories. Many writers write about their memories of abuse, childhood, adversity, and so forth. In “Tell It Slant,” Brenda Miller write about the five senses of memory. What are the memories associated with sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. When you recall a memory, ask yourself: Why do I remember it? What is the significance? Another way to look at memory is to ask yourself: What are my saddest and happiest childhood memories? There are many ways to explore memory. I have often written about memories of my childhood, illness, unemployment, people that have crossed my path, and more.
Imagination. Imaginative writing involves inventing a poem, short story, novel by using the imagination to invent. An easy way to invent is to ask the question,” What if?” What if you were robbed walking home? What if you were diagnosed with a serious disease? What if your son or daughter died?
Observations. Observing the world around you is an is a useful way to write about setting, people, places, objects, things. Make note of significant details, telling details. Make not of what you see, hear, feel. Make not of the sensory images—sights, sounds, taste, smell, touch, hearing. Afterwards, write about your observations.
Overheard Conversations, Snippets of dialogue, Inspiring quotations From Famous People. Some instructors suggest you can write about an overheard conversation. I guess this is possible. I have never used it as inspiration for writing. I prefer to use dialogue in relation to its context. For instance, I`ll write about what I heard at the bar, or in the mall, or at the funeral. The dialogue will only be important because of where I heard it. Another important aspect of dialogue is who said it. Was it someone unknown or someone famous or in the public eye? Often inspirational quotes by philosophers, writers, musicians, political leaders can be a great source of inspiration.
Reading. We write for pleasure, to be transported to another place, to escape the banality of daily life. As well, a writer reads to learn the art and craft of writing. You can find inspiration by reading published creative writing by recognized journalists, poets, fiction writers, essayists. By reading, you learn what others have written about and are writing about. This knowledge can provide you with your own ideas to write about. Read stories in newspapers, magazines, journals, periodicals, and then make note of any interesting ideas, concepts, inventions, stories you uncover.
Your dark side. Each of us has a hidden self and public persona. Some call it your shadow or “dark side.” The shadow remains asleep until we are stressed, or wronged, or humiliated, or embarrassed, or dishonoured, or face a life and death situation, or are threatened by an event or another person. The shadow is often something we don’t like about ourselves. Perhaps we get angry, or procrastinate, or abuse alcohol, or are racist, or prejudice, or intolerant, or like kinky sex. Perhaps we have cheated on a loving partner, or broken the law, or done something that is taboo. How do you write about these topics? You ignore the “inner voice” that tells you not to write about the topic, and then you write the words that you hear in your mind. You must give yourself permission to write about anything.
First experiences. Write about your first job, first kiss, first sex, first love, first car, first home, first experience with death or grief, and so forth. Write about anything that is a first.
Celebrations. Write about holidays, vacations, milestones, birthdays, anniversaries, happy occasions, anything that makes you happy.
Adversity. Write about setbacks, obstacles, challenges, such as illness, disease, obesity, handicap, unemployment, discrimination, abuse, failure. Write about any hurdle or obstacle you have faced and had to overcome.
Artist’s Date. Julia Cameron, in” The Artist’s Way,” suggests that you should schedule some artistic or creative date with yourself once or twice a month. Perhaps, you’ll visit the bookstore, see a movie, attend poetry reading, visit the art gallery, take a trip to see a theatre production. The purpose of the “artist’s date” is to refill your mind with inspiration to write about.
Ideas from your personal journal. Keep a personal journal. Include stories from newspapers, interesting quotations, inspiring lyrics, poetry, photos. Write in it each day. Write about what you’ve read, heard, observed. Write about fleeting moments that were important. Write about events, experiences, people that have passed through your life, touching you in some way. Write about small moments. We you require an idea, turn to your writing journal.
There are many other techniques you can use to write about, such as death, grief, anxiety, depression, addiction, mental illness. Writer Lois Daniel, the author of “How to Write Your own Life Story,” has written a book of ideas on how to write your life story. She explains how to write about inventions, courtship, turning points, animals, family traditions, achievements, accomplishments, and more.
Asking the Right Questions
After you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by asking questions. Journalists often ask these questions. These are:
- Where ?
The question “who?” refers to the person or group of people who the story is about. The question “what?” refers to what happened. The question how refers to “how it happened?” The question “when” refers to when it happened. And the question “why?” refers to why it happened.
You can use these journalistic questions to explore an idea or topic. Furthermore, by answering these questions, you can grow the seed of idea into something larger, like a story about the maple tree. You can also use these questions to organize your work. For instance, you could write a beginning, then have one section for each of who, what, when, where, why, how, and then an ending. Often by answering these questions, you have sufficient material to write a story
Using Creative Thinking Techniques
Once you have an idea to write about, you can explore the idea by using creative thinking techniques. There are many. I’ll identify some of the popular techniques. Most people use brainstorming–but not enough. Often when there’s a setback or problem or obstacle, many people react with emotion–without personal reflection, without first brainstorming ways to react or respond. How do you brainstorm? Simply by making a list of all possibilities. For instance, suppose you wanted to change jobs, but need to write a new resume. You desire to identify all of your skills. You’d brainstorm by creating a list of all of your skills, both minor and major skills you have. Then you’d select the ones that are most advantageous or beneficial. Once you have a few ideas, write about them.
Another technique is to ask why? Then why not? This is a good way to develop answers to a question or problem. It can be used to develop both positive and negative answers to an outcome. For instance, why did your marriage end? Why did you not graduate from university? Why did you graduate? Why did you criticize your friend? Why did you not criticize your friend? Once you have ideas, write about them.
You can change your perspective. See the experience, or event, or person from another point of view. Most of the time, we see the world from our own eyes. For instance, we walk down the street, pass a panhandler who asks for money. We think “He is lazy.” And so, we refuse to provide charity. What if this man was homeless and hungry and down on his luck? To feel some compassion, we’d have to see the world from his point of view. How? You’d have to walk in the shoes of the homeless guy, by imaging you were homeless, without food, and out of work. What is it like to be a beggar on the street? What is it like to be homeless? What is it like to be poverty stricken, to go hungry? Write from a different perspective.
Or, you can challenge assumptions. For instance, most people believe in God. What if God is just an illusion, a human construct? Write about your assumptions–and alternative possibilities.
Some writers begin freewriting. Start by posing a question to yourself, and then answering it. Write down whatever pops into your mind. Afterwards, read what you wrote. Did you find anything interesting? Inspirational? And idea to expand into a poem, essay, some project to accomplish.
Do some mind-mapping or clustering. It is like brainstorming but more controlled. It is a good way to explore possibilities or generate ideas. How to cluster? Begin with a white piece of paper and coloured pens or pencils. In the center of the paper, draw a circle. Inside the circle, write a word or phrase that represents the idea your desire to explore. For instance, suppose you wanted to take photographs, but didn’t know what to capture. You could use the word “photograph.” Then, think of those possibilities or things associated with the idea.
When you something comes to mind, draw a line from the circle, then create another smaller circle, and jot down the idea. If you had a new idea, you’d create another line and circle from the main idea. For instance, you could have lines and circles for travel, sports, landscape, fashion, close-up, portrait. If you had a related idea to your first answer, you draw a line from the second circle, and write down another idea. For instance, suppose you wanted to capture still life, you could write a line and circle for each of beer and glass, journal, books, food to the circle with “close-ups.”
An easy way to think creatively is to ask “what if.” It is a great technique for fueling the imagination. For instance, what if a meteor crashed into the earth? What if you died? What if you won the lottery? What if you were fired from your job? What if you become rich and famous?
Another way to be more creative is to look for ambiguity in the world. Yet, most people don’t like ambiguous situations. They cause communication problems and are confusing. And so, most people have learned to “avoid ambiguity.” However, there are times when ambiguity can light the flame of imagination. Next time, you are immersed in a confusing situation, instead of just reacting, ask yourself: What is going on here? What else could this mean? How else can this be interpreted? For instance, suppose your friend splits up with her husband–and you’d don’t know why. You’re immediate reaction might be to blame the husband who always flirts. This is when you could ask “What else is going on here?” Perhaps the wife has found a new lover. Perhaps she believes that she can meet someone who is more interesting or romantic. When you discover something ambiguous, explore it and write about it.
We are socialized to think in terms of “right” and “wrong” answers. This can limit possibilities or options. Clearly, there are times when right and wrong answers are your only option, such as following the speed limit or answering a multiple-choice exam. However, during the creative process, “to error is not wrong.” Instead, if you make a mistake or error, use it as a stepping stone to another idea you might not have discovered. For instance, suppose you take a photograph, and the light turns out to be incorrect, you could shift the angle of light, or add additional lights, or take the photograph in a different place. What’s the point here?
The mistake or error is an opportunity for you to attempt something else, to think of something else. Another approach to errors or mistakes: Suppose you want to do something new. First, you consider all the positive outcomes, the rewards, the benefits. But this is limiting. You should also consider how you’d respond if something bad happened, if a setback occurred, if there was some obstacle. By thinking in this way–you expand the ideas, the possibilities, the solutions. Write about the outcome of an err or mistake, and the alternative path or journey you took.
Writing Imaginatively or Creatively
What does it involve? You will use the techniques of creative writing to write a poem, personal essay, short story. You might also use them in other types of writing, such as journal writing, letter writing, commentaries, emails.
The purpose of writing creatively is to create word pictures in the mind of the reader–by showing the reader a person, place, event, experience.
Once you have selected an idea, you should use the essential techniques of creative writing to craft your piece of writing. You can use these techniques to write in your journal, a poem, a short story, a novel, a personal essay—or any other writing.
Here are a few important techniques of creative writing that you can use for any writing:
Show your reader the person, the event, the experience, the place, the thing. You can show you reader with vivid descriptions, with concrete and significant details, and with imagery–language that evokes the senses.
Scenes and Summary. When you use a scene, “you are showing the reader what happened. Write in scenes for all important events. A scene include setting details, action (something happens), dialogue (conversation between characters in the story), imagery, concrete and significant details.
When you write in summary, you are telling the reader what happened. Use summary to write about unimportant events or to compress time.
Use concrete, particular, and significant details. Whether you write prose or poetry, you must add meaningful details. Otherwise, your writing will be ordinary, non-descriptive. Concrete details are not abstract. They refer to specific things. Particular details refer to some attribute or attributes of the thing. Significant details means that you want to share only those “important details,” the details which enable the reader to imagine what you are seeing and describing. Writing concrete and significant details allows you to evoke emotion, stir the spirit, touch the soul of the reader. When you add detail, you are showing the reader what happened, what the person looks like, what you are seeing, feeling, tasting, and so forth. When you recall a memory or observe an object, person, place or thing, you don’t need to share all details with the reader, only those that enable the reader to visualize the person, thing, place, you are writing about.
Imagery. This is about writing in words that invoke the sense in the reader. You can write about what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch. Example: Coming to the ledge, I could see an old pair of shoes. I knocked on the door, faded from neglect. An old woman, with disheveled, grey hair and no teeth, opened it. When she talked, I could smell the stench of decaying teeth.
Figurative language. These include personification, symbolism, allusion, and so forth. Two of the most important are simile and metaphor. A simile compares one thing to another by using “like” or “as.” Example: Her home is like a garbage dump. A metaphor suggests that one thing is another. Example: Her home is a garbage dump.
Personal Reflection or Self-Reflection
It involves the discovery of self and acquiring self-knowledge. You find out how you felt about something. What do you value. What is important in your life? What is the meaning? What is the purpose? What makes you happy? Why is the memory important to you? Why do you want to write about it? How does something feel to you? How did you reacted? With fear? Anger? Did you like it? Why? Did you dislike it? Why?
Personal reflection involves self-discovery, self-knowledge, and then sharing your thoughts, feelings, opinions, views, perspective. You can ponder an idea, event, experience, topic, issue, and then write about it. What does it mean to you?
Personal reflection is about exploring the emotional truth. In other words, how does it feel to you.
For more information on finding ideas to write about and how to write about them from a creative writing perspective, read the following:
- Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide To Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind
- How to Write Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola.