Poetry Writing 101 Hands-on

Reader, if you are a wouldbe poetry writer, then get your hands on this book “Writing Poetry” by W N Herbert.  It’s like having a writing tutor patiently helping you – because that’s exactly what is happening – its writer is Bill Herbert, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University.

dictionary meaning of spondulicks

Please do take that book token Christmas present, or lean over your local library counter and demand that they order it, or borrow the spondulicks from a pal, to buy this instantly useful and enjoyable book.  

Whether you are a beginner, near beginner or have written a couple of hundred poems but still feel like you’re at the start of a writing apprenticeship – this book takes you through the process of developing the skills/craft and – more difficult to explain – the feel for, writing poetry.


The book is a portable course on how to write poetry.  Just as you would hope with a course, it simply teaches you a range of good technique in short digestable chunks, together with immediate practice exercises and interesting interviews with established poets.  The whole is mixed up together, so you’re not reading giant prairies of literature theory in tiny unreadable font (the horror!) yet never getting around to actually writing yourself.

The book is full of practical advice, right from the introduction:

“keep a creative journal.  This is where a writer records the drafts, fragments and ideas for writing that they use to build up finished texts.  It can take you through revision after revision or provide lists of titles, characters, rhymes, descriptions, images and phrases you may or may not use.”                              – “Writing Poetry”

Beginning to revise

Right from the start, chapter one, I learnt a solution to an ongoing writing problem: the difficulty of beginning to edit what you write.  It was like word blindness – in my head, I knew I needed to develop, redraft, work more on my poems but struggled to see where to begin or how it could be different.  The solution from this book is simply to write poetry by hand and revise it by scribbling notes and comments on this or by handwriting on a printed out page.  I had created my problem by using the computer too soon – and once a draft looked pristine on the screen or printed out, it was difficult to imagine in other ways.

(I wonder if this will be different for teenage poets beginning to write – as that generation is so used to texting or working with letters on a screen.  Using your phone can be an aid – although most of the ideas in this link can be done with pen and paper)

However, for myself, much as I am comfortable writing and editing onscreen as a blogger, there’s a controlled possibility of layouts.  Whereas, using my hand to do the writing, it’s easy to draw a line through text, mark where lines should be moved and write in many different possibilities, indicating where they are with graphic lines, arrows or an assortment of hieroglyphics which only I as the writer need to understand.  Although I had been saving a document as first draft, and then subsequent ones separately – it wasn’t so easy to see where they had each diverged- they were all on separate documents to display.  And yes, you can use a style of document which tracks changes – but the page quickly becomes overloaded with multi-coloured words and straight lines.  Whereas, with a page showing crossouts and arrows, you can clearly see where everything has moved about.  (Bonus: as you’re rewriting a draft for revising, the words are going through your mind and small parts will be writing themselves into memory).

The better advice from this book is to always leave a poem draft with an indication of what needs looked at with a view to changing, or with definite things to change.  That way, it is clear that there is more work to be done, and you’ve marked out for yourself what needs looking at.  Effectively, you’ve drawn a road map for what’s next.  Next time you return to it, you can make those changes and that will already engage your editing brain.  You’re also getting rid of the nonsensical attitude that when it’s printed and pristine on paper, it’s finished.  And most importantly, you are developing the mind and approach of a working writer.

All of this is just in chapter one.  And there’s a great interview with the poet Vicki Feaver where she lets us see her initial first draft of ideas for a poem, along with the finished version.

Also in the book….

The book also covers: line breaks, alliteration, imagery, line, form, rhyme and theme (building a sequence or pamphlet).

Further tips on writing poetry

On this blog, you’ll find rather a lot about writing poetry, try these:

Tips from Andrew Motion here

Inventive poetry layout by e e cummings

Writing about daily commute by Dobby Gibson

Reasons to write a poem a day (with link to prompts)

Writing with a definite sense of location (writing on an Island) with poet Jen Hadfield

Writing poetry from a sense of wonder – Lucille Clifton

Getting ‘into’ poetry

Poetry vs Depression – Rachel Kelly’s experiences

Brief video interview with US poet Billy Collins on “How to write poetry”



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