Poem Tips


Note:  I began this list years ago, but there’s plenty of room for suggestions.  Just send me your tip and I’ll add it to the list (with attribution, of course).  Aline

General Axioms

  • Show, don’t tell
  • Be concrete and specific
  • Check your images for originality–no clichés!
  • Choose point of view with purpose
  • Choose the right title
  • Cut, cut, cut—fill “the jar”
    • “The Jar:  If something doesn’t fit your piece, save it for later, use it as a ‘start’ for another piece, recycle/re-use in some way.

Grammar, Usage, and Word Play

  • Pay attention to verb choices—
    • present tense gives immediacy—“sit” vs. “sat”
    • active vs. passive—“sit” vs. “is seated”
    • direct vs. participial forms—“sit” vs. “is sitting”
    • the correct tense for time relationships—sit, sat, has sat, had sat—check consistency
    • review your verbs to figure out if there are “punchier” verbs you can use
  • Concentrate on verbs and nouns
  • Be sparing with adjectives—none or one per phrase
    • for description, be sure it contributes to the work and isn’t just “there”
  • Avoid adverbs unless you have a specific purpose for using one
  • Choose the right “little” words and minimize—prepositions, articles
  • check your “references”
  • Switch things around—
    • words, phrases, clauses, whole blocks
    • rearrange/reverse lines within stanzas or a whole poem
    • rearrange/reverse paragraphs within a short story or chapter of a novel
    • rearrange/reverse chapters of a novel
    • invent whatever weird configuration you can find—anything that doesn’t make sense
    • experiment with line breaks and lengths in a poem—1, 2, 3, 4 …
    • experiment with paragraph lengths and chapter lengths in a short story or novel
  • highlight your best phrase or couple of phrases and see if you can match that in the rest of your piece; if it continues to stick out, cut it and put it in your “jar”
  • Use repetition with care


  • Listen to sounds and how they fit together—right down to individual sounds
  • With dialogue and accents, check how sounds change
  • Check rhythm – scan, if necessary – this applies to both poetry and prose
  • See where the rhymes fall, including slant rhymes – this applies to both prose and poetry
  • Read out loud, read into tapes, ask a friend to read it to you
  • Read your poem with a breath at the end of every line and see if each of your lines can stand alone or, at least, has some significance;
  • Try the same process with your “throwaway” sentences in prose, particularly in cases of transition
  • Read individual paragraphs into a tape and listen to see if the paragraph completes its arc
  • Get “players” and read your dialog like a play


  • Try different forms, formats, and layouts
  • Test your format—print, oral, Internet


  • Give the work time and try these tips and tricks again
  • Use your tape recorder to help you do that—tape a reading, leave it for a week or a month and see what it sounds like
  • Call on a friend whose “out loud” reading skills you trust—either listen “live” or ask your friend to read it into a tape for later
  • When you think you’re done, set a goal to cut a certain number of words (10, 20, 30, 100 – it depends on the size of your piece) and look for places to cut. There’s always something
  • To stick to your schedule, fool yourself with postcards. Address the postcard to yourself and put each step of your “plan” on the information side of the postcard. Then address the postcard to yourself and stamp it. Add a post-it note with the date you want it mailed. Give them all to a friend to mail. When it arrives, you either feel satisfied because you met your deadline or it kicks you into gear if you haven’t met it.


  • Don’t send something out until you’re confident it’s ready to go
  • Use the “revolving door” trick to keep your spirits up
  • After a few rejections or if an editor gives you feedback, look at it again

Find other tips and tricks from books, colleagues, your own inventive head


copyright Aline Soules 2017

under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States


%d bloggers like this: