Want to be a Better Writer? Start with a Poem

By Eric Eisenberg

June 5, 2021

On-the-spot challenge: Go find a quiet place, take 20 minutes (30 if you can swing it), and write a short poem.

Keep it to 10–12 lines tops, check it over, then give it a good title. Just be sure to give it a little substance. Something that has meaning for you.

Go on, do it now, then come back and finish the article. Tell your boss not to worry — you’ll be a better writer when you get back.

Go on, do it now.

Why the poem?

When we focus on writing something brief and meaningful, we have no choice but to nurture it. In doing so, we tend to use principles that we typically neglect in longer-form writing. Assuming you braved my challenge, I’ll bet you used 7 techniques that all experienced writers use regardless of project type or size — possibly without even realizing it.

1. You considered each word.

There’s a limit to how many words you’re going to include in a short poem, so I’m guessing you made a conscious decision about each one (even the little articles like a” and the”). Importantly, you contemplated every omission too. There should be no difference in your approach to longer-form writing. Novelists and journalists keep a close eye on their word choices too — it just takes them longer to finish.

Fun fact: When you focus your attention on each word, you realize that no two words connote exactly the same thing. Huge differs a bit from enormous. Speedy isn’t quite like quick. Often times, the right choice is less about a word’s meaning and more about its sound or feel.

2. You paced your sentences.

Each line has a rhythm. Longer sentences can handle your finer details, or add to the emotional journey, or build a little tension. Short ones have punch. Be aware of how your sentences sit together and the cadence they deliver. Mix things up to reach the right balance and a more engaging read.

3. You included, or considered, fine details.

Poems encourage writers to include specific details that add color, dimension, symbolism and foreshadowing to a story — and tiny nuances can influence an entire piece. This said, remember that overloading a reader with details will make them yawn. Here’s a trick to help you find the right balance: Make sure there’s a reason for every detail you include.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”

Anton Chekhov

If a detail serves or advances the story you’re trying to tell, keep it. If it doesn’t, pull it.

4. You included, or considered, something unexpected.

Have you ever read a poem, story or song lyric that doesn’t follow a logical path yet still communicates clearly?

If you’re providing instructions to your readers, then by all means, focus on logic and clarity. But often times, stepping away from the rational part of your brain and including an unexpected element or non-sequitur can improve the feel, and even help you make accidental connections that help tell a better story. Try stepping away from perfect chronological storytelling. Base a sentence on feel, not grammar. Make up a word.

Add a one-sentence paragraph to set a point apart.

You’ve got to approach this carefully — go too far and you’ll lose your reader. Just remember that unexpected elements can wake people up and get em engaged.

5. You crafted a title.

In my mind, the most important role of a title is to set up the principal connection we want our readers to make. This setup frames how our reader approaches what they’re about to dig into. Picture 2 identical novels with different titles:

  • The Trial of Tom Robinson
  • To Kill a Mockingbird

One title focuses on the story’s central event, the other on the central theme. Each sets up a unique connection to the story, resulting in different expectations up front, and likely, different takeaways in the end.

I recommend finalizing your title after you finish everything else to make sure your setup is just the way you want it. This goes for poems, songs, articles, novels — even emails (subject line). Take advantage of the fact that that even a minor change can alter the way the reader approaches and absorbs your piece.

6. You considered the feel.

So much of writing is about crafting the right feel to get your reader in the headspace you want them in. After finishing any piece of writing I read it from top to bottom focusing only on feel. This is where I may find that I need to dial up the edginess by 5%, which might just mean swapping a word here and there. Or that my conclusion is too wordy and diluting my main point. Pay attention to your gut here.

Another trick that works great for this: Find a friend you’d want the piece to appeal to, and have them read it. Insist they give you honest feedback, and be open to it. In most cases, you’ll get some unexpected comments that will help you like your piece even more.

7. You edited and re-edited, then you re-re-edited.

Every editorial pass you take tightens details and strengthens the whole. Without exception, I spend much more time on the editing than I do on writing the initial draft. Editing takes time. It forces you to be critical about what’s working, what needs to change, and what needs to go away.

This said, watch your balance here too. Take too many editorial passes and you may get too close to the piece and lose the ability to make objective decisions. (You’ll know this is happening when you say something to yourself like, I can’t look at this damn thing anymore.”) This is another reason your friend’s review can be a big help.

Remember, your initial draft is meant for getting your ideas out. Don’t start editing until they’re all out. If you try to refine prematurely, you’re bypassing an important part of the creative process and stunting the development of your ideas.