Poetry Writing Tips: 10 Helpful Hacks for How to Write a Poem

Jerz > Writing > General Creative Writing TipsPoetry | Fiction ]

If you are writing a poem because you want to capture a feeling that you experienced, then you don’t need these tips. Just write whatever feels right. Only you experienced the feeling that you want to express, so only you will know whether your poem succeeds.

If, however, your goal is to communicate with a reader — drawing on the established conventions of a literary genre (conventions that will be familiar to the experienced reader) to generate an emotional response in your reader — then simply writing what feels right to you won’t be enough.  (See also “Poetry is for the Ear” and “When Backwards Newbie Poets Write.”)

These tips will help you make an important transition:

  • away from writing poetry to celebrate, commemorate, or capture your own feelings (in which case you, the poet, are the center of the poem’s universe)
  • towards writing poetry in order to generate feelings in your reader (in which case the poem exists entirely to serve the reader).
  1. Poetry: 10 Tips for Writing PoemsKnow Your Goal
  2. Avoid Clichés
  3. Avoid Sentimentality
  4. Use Images
  5. Use Metaphor and Simile
  6. Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words
  7. Communicate Theme
  8. Subvert the Ordinary
  9. Rhyme with Extreme Caution
  10. Revise, Revise, Revise

Tip #1 Know Your Goal.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you get there?

You need to know what you are trying to accomplish before you begin any project. Writing a poem is no exception.

Before you begin, ask yourself what you want your poem to “do.” Do you want your poem to explore a personal experience, protest a social injustice, describe the beauty of nature, or play with language in a certain way? Once your know the goal of your poem, you can conform your writing to that goal. Take each main element in your poem and make it serve the main purpose of the poem.

Tip #2 Avoid Clichés

Stephen Minot defines a cliché as: “A metaphor or simile that has become so familiar from overuse that the vehicle … no longer contributes any meaning whatever to the tenor. It provides neither the vividness of a fresh metaphor nor the strength of a single unmodified word….The word is also used to describe overused but nonmetaphorical expressions such as ‘tried and true’ and ‘each and every'” (Three Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction and Drama, 405).

Cliché also describes other overused literary elements. “Familiar plot patterns and stock characters are clichés on a big scale” (Minot 148). Clichés can be overused themes, character types, or plots. For example, the “Lone Ranger” cowboy is a cliché because it has been used so many times that people no longer find it original.

A work full of clichés is like a plate of old food: unappetizing.

Creative Writing Tips

More creative writing tips.

Clichés work against original communication. People value creative talent. They want to see work that rises above the norm. When they see a work without clichés, they know the writer has worked his or her tail off, doing whatever it takes to be original. When they see a work full to the brim with clichés, they feel that the writer is not showing them anything above the ordinary. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this paragraph is chock full of clichés… I’ll bet you were bored to tears.)

Clichés dull meaning. Because clichéd writing sounds so familiar, people can finish whole lines without even reading them. If they don’t bother to read your poem, they certainly won’t stop to think about it. If they do not stop to think about your poem, they will never encounter the deeper meanings that mark the work of an accomplished poet.

Examples of Clichés:

  • busy as a bee
  • tired as a dog
  • working my fingers to bone
  • beet red
  • on the horns of a dilemma
  • blind as a bat
  • eats like a horse
  • eats like a bird

How to Improve a Cliché

I will take the cliché “as busy as a bee” and show how you can express the same idea without cliché.

  1. Determine what the clichéd phrase is trying to say.
    In this case, I can see that “busy as a bee” is a way to describe the state of being busy.
  2. Think of an original way to describe what the cliché is trying to describe.
    For this cliché, I started by thinking about busyness. I asked myself the question, “What things are associated with being busy?” I came up with: college, my friend Jessica, corporation bosses, old ladies making quilts and canning goods, and a computer, fiddlers fiddling. From this list, I selected a thing that is not as often used in association with busyness: violins.
  3. Create a phrase using the non-clichéd way of description.
    I took my object associated with busyness and turned it into a phrase: “I feel like a bow fiddling an Irish reel.” This phrase communicates the idea of “busyness” much better than the worn-out, familiar cliché. The reader’s mind can picture the insane fury of the bow on the violin, and know that the poet is talking about a very frenzied sort of busyness. In fact, those readers who know what an Irish reel sounds like may even get a laugh out of this fresh way to describe “busyness.”

Try it! Take a cliché and use these steps to improve it. You may even end up with a line you feel is good enough to put in a poem!

Tip #3 Avoid Sentimentality.

Sentimentality is “dominated by a blunt appeal to the emotions of pity and love …. Popular subjects are puppies, grandparents, and young lovers” (Minot 416). “When readers have the feeling that emotions like rage or indignation have been pushed artificially for their own sake, they will not take the poem seriously” (132).

Minot says that the problem with sentimentality is that it detracts from the literary quality of your work (416). If your poetry is mushy or teary-eyed, your readers may openly rebel against your effort to invoke emotional response in them. If that happens, they will stop thinking about the issues you want to raise, and will instead spend their energy trying to control their own gag reflex.

Tip #4 Use Images.

“BE A PAINTER IN WORDS,” says UWEC English professor emerita, poet, and songwriter Peg Lauber. She says poetry should stimulate six senses:

  • sight
  • hearing
  • smell
  • touch
  • taste
  • kinesiology (motion)


  • “Sunlight varnishes magnolia branches crimson” (sight)
  • “Vacuum cleaner’s whir and hum startles my ferret” (hearing)
  • “Penguins lumber to their nests” (kinesiology)

Lauber advises her students to produce fresh, striking images (“imaginative”). Be a camera. Make the reader be there with the poet/speaker/narrator. (See also: “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell“)

Tip #5 Use Metaphor and Simile.

Use metaphor and simile to bring imagery and concrete words into your writing.


A metaphor is a statement that pretends one thing is really something else:

Example: “The lead singer is an elusive salamander.”

This phrase does not mean that the lead singer is literally a salamander. Rather, it takes an abstract characteristic of a salamander (elusiveness) and projects it onto the person. By using metaphor to describe the lead singer, the poet creates a much more vivid picture of him/her than if the poet had simply said “The lead singer’s voice is hard to pick out.”


A simile is a statement where you say one object is similar to another object. Similes use the words “like” or “as.”

Example: “He was curious as a caterpillar” or “He was curious, like a caterpillar”

This phrase takes one quality of a caterpillar and projects it onto a person. It is an easy way to attach concrete images to feelings and character traits that might usually be described with abstract words.

Note: A simile is not automatically any more or less “poetic” than a metaphor. You don’t suddenly produce better poems if you replace all your similes with metaphors, or vice versa. The point to remember is that comparison, inference, and suggestion are all important tools of poetry; similes and metaphors are tools that will help in those areas.

Tip #6 Use Concrete Words Instead of Abstract Words.

Concrete words describe things that people experience with their senses.

  • orange
  • warm
  • cat

A person can see orange, feel warm, or hear a cat.

A poet’s concrete words help the reader get a “picture” of what the poem is talking about. When the reader has a “picture” of what the poem is talking about, he/she can better understand what the poet is talking about.

Abstract words refer to concepts or feelings.

  • liberty
  • happy
  • love

“Liberty” is a concept, “happy” is a feeling, and no one can agree on whether “love” is a feeling, a concept or an action.

A person can’t see, touch, or taste any of these things. As a result, when used in poetry, these words might simply fly over the reader’s head, without triggering any sensory response. Further, “liberty,” “happy,” and “love” can mean different things to different people. Therefore, if the poet uses such a word, the reader may take a different meaning from it than the poet intended.

Change Abstract Words Into Concrete Words

To avoid problems caused by using abstract words, use concrete words.

Example: “She felt happy.”

This line uses the abstract word “happy.” To improve this line, change the abstract word to a concrete image. One way to achieve this is to think of an object or a scene that evokes feelings of happiness to represent the happy feeling.

Improvement: “Her smile spread like red tint on ripening tomatoes.”

This line uses two concrete images: a smile and a ripening tomato. Describing the smile shows the reader something about happiness, rather than simply coming right out and naming the emotion. Also, the symbolism of the tomato further reinforces the happy feelings. Red is frequently associated with love; ripening is a positive natrual process; food is further associated with being satisfied.

Prof. Jerz belabors Kara’s point:

Extension: Now, let’s do something with this image.

She sulked in the garden, reticent...hard;
Unwilling to face his kisses -- or unable.
One autumn morn she felt her sour face
Ripen to a helpless smile, tomato-red.
Her parted lips whispered, "Hello, sunshine!"

OK, the image has gotten embarrassingly obvious now, but you can see how the introduction of the tomato permits us to make many additional connections. While Kara’s original example simply reported a static emotional state — “She felt happy,” the image of the ripening tomato, which Kara introduced as a simple simile to describe a smile, has grown into something much more complex. Regardless of what the word “tomato” invoked in your mind, an abstraction like “happy” can never stretch itself out to become a whole poem, without relying on concrete images. –DGJ

Tip #7 Communicate Theme.

Poetry always has a theme. Theme is not just a topic, but an idea with an opinion.

Theme = Idea + Opinion

Topic: “The Vietnam War”

This is not a theme. It is only a subject. It is just an event. There are no ideas, opinions, or statements about life or of wisdom contained in this sentence

Theme: “History shows that despite our claims to be peace-loving, unfortunately each person secretly dreams of gaining glory through conflict.”

This is a theme. It is not just an event, but a statement about an event. It shows what the poet thinks about the event. The poet strives to show the reader his/her theme during the entire poem, making use of literary techniques.

Tip #8 Subvert the Ordinary.

Poets’ strength is the ability to see what other people see everyday in a new way. You don’t have to be special or a literary genius to write good poems–all you have to do is take an ordinary object, place, person, or idea, and come up with a new perception of it.

Example: People ride the bus everyday.

Poets’ Interpretation: A poet looks at the people on the bus and imagines scenes from their lives. A poet sees a sixty-year old woman and imagines a grandmother who runs marathons. A poet sees a two-year old boy and imagines him painting with ruby nail polish on the toilet seat, and his mother struggling to not respond in anger.

Take the ordinary and turn it on its head. (The word “subvert” literally means “turn upside down”.)

Tip #9 Rhyme with Extreme Caution.

Rhyme and meter (the pattern of stressed and unstressed words) can be dangerous if used the wrong way. Remember sing-song nursery rhymes? If you choose a rhyme scheme that makes your poem sound sing-song, it will detract from the quality of your poem.

I recommend that beginning poets stick to free verse. It is hard enough to compose a poem without dealing with the intricacies of rhyme and meter. (Note: see Jerz’s response to this point, in “Poetry Is For the Ear.”)

If you feel ready to create a rhymed poem, refer to chapters 6-10 of Stephen Minot’s bookThree Genres: The Writing of Poetry, Fiction, and Drama. 6th ed., for more help.

Tip #10 Revise, Revise, Revise.

The first completed draft of your poem is only the beginning. Poets often go through several drafts of a poem before considering the work “done.”

To revise:

  • Put your poem away for a few days, and then come back to it. When you re-read it, does anything seem confusing? Hard to follow? Do you see anything that needs improvement that you overlooked the first time? Often, when you are in the act of writing, you may leave out important details because you are so familiar with the topic. Re-reading a poem helps you to see it from the “outsider’s perspective” of a reader.
  • Show your poem to others and ask for criticism. Don’t be content with a response like, “That’s a nice poem.” You won’t learn anything from that kind of response. Instead, find people who will tell you specific things you need to improve in your poem.

26 May 2000 — originally submitted by Kara Ziehl, as an assignment for Prof. Jerz’s technical writing class
01 Aug 2000 — modified and posted by Jerz
30 Nov 2001 — minor edits by Jerz
21 July 2011 — minor refresh
22 May 2013 — added intro before the tips.
24 Dec 2017 — minor formatting tweaks
09 Apr 2019 — corrected a 1000-year error caused by a typo in the above line

See Also:

HandoutsCreative WritingPoetry Tips

Poetry is for the Ear (jerz.setonhill.edu)

Poetry is for the Ear —Whatever poetry you write or read, learn to listen with the ears of your audience. Pay attention to the sounds the words make, even if you write in free verse.

Short Poems: Little Exquisite Vessels of Thought –A few good lines of verse can pack as much emotional content as a whole paragraph of ordinary prose. Just because a poem is short does not mean writing it is easy.

Getting College Credit for your High School Poems  –Poems that perfectly record how you felt about events in your life probably won’t work as submissions for college writing classes. Most professors will expect you to revise in-progress poems.

About This Page
Kara Ziehl, a UWEC creative writing major, compiled these tips in order to help students in my English 110 (“Introduction to College Writing”) class. I have fine-tuned and expanded her text somewhat, but I think she did an excellent job — this is now required reading for budding student poets in my classes. –DGJ

305 thoughts on “Poetry Writing Tips: 10 Helpful Hacks for How to Write a Poem

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  7. Rhythm is left out of your ten steps, yet every poet I have ever worked with treats it as the most important. The sound of a poem is its essence.

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  9. Very helpful tips, I use to write poetry in English and Hindi,
    Since I follow these tips by Kara, there is significant improvement, I learned 3-4 basic rules which makes a poetry really lovely.

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  19. I know i have potetial in writing i need your help, as i go on. God’s gifts should be wasted.

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  26. I am not a good poet but these steps are brilliant and I am looking forward to show it to my family and friends

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  29. Thankyou, this was sommewhat helpful, well not really because I go to the #1 non-selective school in the city of Chicago!!!

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  40. it is very usefull I can use these tips into my poems thank you veru much for the wonderfull tips

  41. thakz fo rthis tips….
    i was not just a beginer but this proved a good improvement in me and thakz a lot

  42. Very good tips. Do you, perhaps, read and criticize people’s poetry? I would very much like to become a better writer.

    • Perhaps your local library or an independent bookstore has a writing club, or perhaps you could look into whether your local community college offers a poetry-writing class.

    • I’m not sure I understand… if this is a class assignment, what is the learning goal? Are you supposed to express your feelings, demonstrate that you’re engaged in some lesson, demonstrate your familiarity with some particular kind of poem or some specific literary device?

    • The only cure for writer’s block is to write. I’m afraid I don’t have any tricks. I keep several projects going at once, some of them writing projects, some of them other things. When I am not productive on one project, I switch to another.

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  44. This is a very clear guide and cant be more happy.ave always wanted to know how to write poems and now with this,i feel like now am already a step ahead,thankyou.

  45. For christmas I am framing an old sales catalog pic of the family home, my parents bought the kit & built it (1940 = $2350), & gifting to my siblings. As there is an 1.25″ x 6.5″ blank space at the bottom it would be perfect for a 4 line poem, I can express the sentiment but I can’t make it rhyme:
    With dreams, work & faith
    A stout & sturdy house they built
    Not just wood & stone
    But with trust & love
    Can I pay somebody to make this into poetry?? john

  46. I didn’t read the whole entire list, but some of the tips were good. But I really disagree with tips #1 and #3. I disagree with #1 because when I write poetry, I don’t really have a plan, I just write. Write what I feel, which is why I don’t need a plan, the plan is written in your heart, your emotion. It’s poetry, not novels. Which ties in to #3, I use my emotion, if I’m angry, then yes I will write an angry poem (sometimes with swear words), if I’m sad, then yes I will write about depressing things. People love my poetry and take it seriously. Poetry is about writing what’s in your heart and what you feel. There are NO rules to writing a poem, there’s no guidebook, it’s clearly up to the writer. Poetry is art in words.

    • I am very much agree on: ‘Poetry is art in words’ . but for me English is my second language, need some guide lines how to write poems in English the way the English poetry is. Thanks Great job. very much appreciated.

  47. Great post man. Very good tips for people who want to write poems and don’t know how to start. Following these tips they can write pretty nice poem.

    • Free verse poetry (like that written by e.e. cummings) doesn’t require any specific number of syllables per line, but if you want to write a sonnet, a limerick, or haiku, then counting meter (the number of syllables, and also the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables) matters a lot. It’s the same with rhyme. Poetry is still poetry if it doesn’t rhyme, but a sonnet has to rhyme a certain way, or it’s not a sonnet.

      Does that help?

  48. Hi! I’m Gerbie, an english teacher.

    I’d like to ask permission if I could use the article above in my Module for my English class.

    Thank you. Hope to hear from you soon.

    • You are welcome to assign, print out, or show this page to your students. I ask that you please do not publish an electronic copy of this page, as I do change the content from time to tine and would not want old copies floating around.

  49. “I recommend that beginning poets stick to free verse” with respect one considers that phrase as the most ill-informed advice on the page. There are sufficient difficulties defining what distinguishes prosaic prose from poetry without forcing beginners – usually youn and with an inner sense of harmony – to conform to a mould that is quite likely to nip any potential harmony and literary vocation in the bud.

    Poetical rules
    should be ingrained then ignored,
    only the heart schools

    Poetical forms
    should serve, and not be served,
    what, deserved, conforms ?

    Muse poetical
    mocks lock’s lined paradox box, shocks
    re…role versicle

    Verse should IMHO be used as a springboard for poetical exploration and vers libres or free verse should only be experimented with once the basic groundwork of formal poetry is intuitively absorbed.

    • Thanks for your comment. My student co-author presented her opinion as a tip, which is not quite the same thing as creating a rule. You have presented a different viewpoint, which I hope will make this page all the richer.

  50. writing a poem is nothing but puttting ur feelings in words……its all abt hw u feel how u describe….how u imagin…how u njoy and get in to the situvation….100%

  51. Dis is incredible!!!!! true writings are 4rm within.They hook un2 ur heart lyk charming pains nd der’s no way of resistin until u write out how nd wat u u feel!!!!!!

  52. thank you so much. you are indeed a blessing to all. with this i definitely will be a better poet. God bless you real good.

  53. Writing poetry is simply, as writing any well rounded novel goes.
    Not only written,
    for first times sake,
    But then again to be written
    over and over
    until revision is beyond mortal limits.
    For once your work has been edited
    so many times you gag at the sight of it,
    read it once more, have another read it as well
    and if poetry, your writing, upholds-
    It is time for publication.

  54. 'You need to know what you are trying to accomplish before you begin any project. Writing a poem is no exception.'
    No! The poem comes out of the working out of what you want to say. If you know what you want to say before you start then just say it in prose. Begone you planners.

    • I think the artical is not saying that you need to plan your poem, but simply decide a topic. You wouldn’t start writing a piece of prose without deciding if it was about aliens, magic, or the economy. First you would pick. It’s the same with poems.
      That tip actually helped me. Me teacher was encouraging us to just start writing then shape it, but as a begginer this was very frusturating. I find my diary more useful for that kind of thing.

  55. Thank you muchly for this concise and clear guide. If you could, I'd love you to explain line-breaking: enjambment and end-stopping.

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