1. Don’t be afraid to get things wrong!
Everyone likes to be right. But you only get better by stepping outside of your comfort zone. One of the things school can implicitly teach us is not to make mistakes unless you want everyone to laugh at you. After a few mistakes, you soon learn to internalise the laughter before you make a fool of yourself and you simply don’t externalise anything at all. Like the chinese proverb – better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove any possible doubt. Great advice for saving face, but not so good for writing poems. Think Samuel Beckett – "Fail again. Fail better". That’s good advice for any artist. The worst thing you can do is learn to block off all your thoughts before they actually get out onto the page. That won’t get you anywhere.
Work on the assumption that you’ll have to get 99 things wrong in order to get one thing anywhere near perfect. And if you can learn to enjoy the process of getting things wrong, then one day you’ll be great!2. Keep a diary
A diary helps you keep track of your changing emotions and spot habits in your own life. Time can help you be more honest with yourself and allow you to see your own mistakes.
It doesn’t have to be epic. It can simply be a record of what you did on a day, or how you felt. If you don’t like doing that, you can simply set yourself the target of writing down one line of poetry that you’ve found and that you like each day.
When you look through the diary after a while, some things will seem boring and obvious, but a few details might jump out and bring back a situation very vividly. Those are the ones to look out for. Use them to start you off. 3. Writing is a dialogue
A dialogue is a conversation. Writing is a conversation between the writer and the reader. In our case, between the poet and the poetry readers.
If you’re publishing your work, don’t pretend you don’t care what other people think of it if they don't seem to understand or like it. Of course you do! You're not going to please everybody all the time, so don't worry about the odd negative comment, but if people aren't responding as you'd like them to, try to see it as an opportunity. Take feedback on board, rewrite and perhaps even send a message to ask someone who has commented to comment again on your latest draft. One of the mistakes it's easy to make is writing about something with implications that seem obvious to you, but are not contained in the poem itself and so are unclear to someone who doesn't know you. Imagine reading it as someone who has no idea whether you’re old or young, male or female, American or Australian, a pupil or a teacher… is it as obvious now?
If you want the dialogue you are having with unknown readers to improve, you have to learn to read your own poems from a stranger’s perspective. That is one of the most useful skills in improving your poetry. You can try it with something you’ve written now. Go through line by line from the beginning and try to write down what a stranger would interpret from what you’ve said. The picture will build up through the poem, but it may be that you can identify a place where you’ve assumed they will understand something that is obvious to you, but wouldn’t make sense without some piece of knowledge that you have about your life which is separate from the poem. 4. To rhyme or not to rhyme?
Rhyme can work wonders in a poem. But it is not essential. As a rule of thumb, predictable rhymes work better in light, catchy entertaining verse. If you want people to take a poem more seriously, you should consider trimming any obvious rhymes. Half rhymes and visual rhymes (Good, mood) are great for keeping the flow going without drawing attention to the fact that you were severely limited in your word choice. Try reading one of your rhyming poems and think about two things - give each rhyme a rating out of five for its predictability and its unusualness. If you have a rhyme that is highly predictable, even though it's an unusual word that you wouldn't usually find outside of a poem, it may well sound forced to other people and take them outside the flow of the poem. Unless you're doing this for a particular effect, often comic, it might be best to rewrite the whole phrase.5. Learn a poem off by heart
If you value poetry and you want to improve, learn some poems off by heart. Start with something short, funny and engaging. You’ll have more fun by entertaining people than you will by trying (and probably failing) to make them see the meaning of life, or crumble into a pool of tears.
Once you’ve got used to learning poems and you’re more confident in your own ability to deliver under pressure, then move on to some heavier stuff and your own writings if that’s your thing.6. Perform your own poetry
You won’t ever get such a solid sense of where a poem works and where it doesn’t as when you perform your own writing to a group of people. Suddenly you’ll find that you have a very critical eye in your own head. Even doing it once will improve your ability to edit in the future – you’ll simply need to imagine standing up in front of those same people again and reading your new poem. Are there any bits that you wouldn’t be entirely happy with reading out? Any bits that are not clear enough? Go back and edit. 7. Find someone you can trust to read your early drafts
You need two things from a reader of your early drafts. Enthusiasm and realism. Depending on your own aims and your emotional balance, you’ll want more of one or the other. People who are too critical early on are just going to take the wind out of your sails and discourage you from continuing. But on the other hand, someone who just loves everything you do isn’t going to help you improve.
Avoid just asking ‘Did you like it?’. Try to be more specific and ask, ‘What was the poem about for you?’. ‘Did you get lost anywhere?’ ‘Were there any bits that made you cringe?’ If someone else can help you improve your poem in a way that you didn’t spot – that’s feedback gold!8. Read poetry, give feedback
If you want to be a good poet, you’ve got to read poetry. As much as possible. Find out what you like and what you don’t like. Other people will write about things you’ve never even thought of writing about. They’ll help you see different ways of approaching a subject. And when you find someone who writes similar poems to you, you’ll get a good sense of what the reader experiences when they read one of your own poems.
You’ll find that giving feedback trains your eye and helps you to avoid mistakes that you notice other people making. You’ll find out if you’re writing poems that everyone else is writing, or using phrases that are tedious or cliched. As you won’t be emotionally attached o other people’s poems, it’ll often be easier to see how you might improve them than it is with your own poems where you might be overly attached to a particular word, phrase or line. 9. Write a little often
Get into the habit of writing. Set aside fifteen minutes a day when you can just write. Setting a timer can be useful, so you commit to sitting at your desk or wherever you’re writing for fifteen minutes whatever happens. Turn off your mobile phone, keep away from the computer, use a blank piece of paper and a pen. Don’t try and write the finished piece. Don’t even try and write in verse, just write. You can always go back afterwards and use your first ideas to work them up into a proper first draft of a poem.10. Make the most of Hello Poetry
There’s an amazing collection of new
and classic poets
and poems on Hello Poetry - and lots of collections
if you prefer to browse by theme. Get involved in the community, respond to people’s poems, give feedback. If there’s a poet who you particularly admire, write them a message and politely ask them to read your poems and give you some feedback. Don’t forget to look at the Wordcloud to browse by your favourite words (I just found out from my Wordcloud that 'mum' is in my top 20, but 'dad' is loitering down near number 50 - hmm...) and also keep an eye on the experiments page where you’ll find fun poetry exercises to get you inspired. Finally, if you are serious about poetry, help support other poets and keep Hello Poetry free by buying a book by your favourite contemporary poet.
Ok! That’s the top ten tips I could come up with. Let me know what you think and please comment with any of your best tips – and I’ll write a follow up post later with your ideas and links to your poems!
Bye for now!
PS If you haven't got yourself a profile pic yet, read my Photo Me blog post for some inspiration.