Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guest Blog: Perfecting Poetry: 12 Tips for the Beginner

Today's guest blog is by my writing partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson.  Although we've never physically met (we live on different continents!), that hasn't stopped us from collaborating on a series of poetry chapbooks designed to replace trite greeting cards with real, deep sentiment.  We think it's a new concept for inexpensive holiday gifts. The chapbooks include Cherished Pulse, a book of love poetry, with beautiful artwork from Vicki Thomas, and She Wore Emerald Then, for mothers on your gift list, with photographs by May Lattanzio.  A new book titled Imagining the Future will be released shortly, just in time for Father's Day 2010, with further books in the works include a Christmas collection and one with a women's lib slant.   But enough from me, here's Carolyn, the poetry maven, to tell you how to perfect your own poetry.


I encourage my writing students to use some elements of poetry in their other writing and some elements of fiction and nonfiction in their poetry. The genres really aren't isolated. But mostly, I encourage them to try their hand at poetry, real poetry, the kind that comes from the heart. The first step is to make it less scary so they'll feel comfortable with it and these are my Twelve Tips for the Beginner.

  1. Try free verse (no intentional rhyming).
  2. Write dense, poetic prose, then divide it into lines—or not. If you don't, you'll have a prose poem.
  3. Break lines after important words. If you scan down the last words in each line of a poem, you should have a good sense of what the poem is about.
  4. Eliminate as many adjectives and adverbs as you can and strengthen your verbs. You poem will be more powerful.
  5. Eliminate as many of the clutter words as you can. Articles, conjunctions, even some prepositions.
  6. Try making different pictures on the page with the words. Your poem can be in triplets, couplets, indented unusually, even be set up in shapes. Try to make the design fit with the subject of your poem.
  7. Avoid long, Latinate words.
  8. Use images rather than explaining.
  9. Know metaphors, similes, assonance and alliteration. Play with them. Don't strain.
  10. If you want to rhyme, try to use uncommon ones. No moons and Junes.
  11. Read and write poetry even if you don't think you want to. You may be surprised at how much you like it. It’s changed a lot since your high school English Lit days.
  12. Buy a poetry book or chapbook at least once a year.  That gesture supports your learning curve and the arts and you may get inspired.  


Carolyn took up poetry late in life. After she wrote her award-winning novel This Is the Place, she realized she enjoyed metaphor, simile and symbol more than other aspects of fiction. She also found it easier to squeeze short periods of time for poetry into her writing schedule than large chunks of novel-writing time.
Howard-Johnson is the recipient of the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award, the Book Publicists of Southern California's Irwin Award and her community's Character and Ethics award for her work promoting tolerance with her writing. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly's list of 14 women of "San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen."

The author loves to travel and has studied at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom; Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia; and Charles University, Prague. She admits to carrying a pen and journal with her wherever she goes.  Her website is: and


  1. Excellent post. I think your idea for sentiments of significance to replace greeting card drivel is great.

    You're lucky to have Carolyn for a writing partner.

  2. Carolyn, excellent advice, which I heartily second. And I advise anyone who wants to write poetry to read, read, read, other poets.

    I've also enjoyed taking poetic prose (Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, or Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address") and try dividing it into lines and stanza -- try different number of lines per stanza, different stanza breaks, and see how it affects how you read the piece.


  3. Although I love Carolyn's "frugal" series, it's nice to see her other work showcased. Congratulations on your poetry books, ladies!

  4. Nice featured piece on Carolyn. I left some feedback on her Book Marketing Network page. I'm looking forward to our mutual book interview on Twitter 2-18-10, Thurs at 1:30 PM Pacific. It should be a lot of fun. Gary

  5. Great poetry tips, Carolyn. I'd love to see one of your poems featured in a future post.

  6. She makes me want to write poetry again.

  7. Great idea Kathy, there will definitely be more from Carolyn on this blog. As for writing poetry, I will confirm that all great fiction writers are poets - the perfect phrase, exactly placed, with rhythm, powerful imagery, and flow - that's what every great author aspires to.

  8. Asyou know, Maggie, I'm on vacation. Thanks for this beautiful job and thank you all for stopping by and for your enthusiasm about poetry. It was a great idea you had, Maggie. We writers are not all one dimensional.(-:

  9. Great post! Thanks Carolyn and Maggie!

    I have not seriously written poetry since high school, but certainly appreciate the value of poetry - as an excercise and a means of expression.

    Great tips! Thanks again!


  10. Great Post. What useful advice to get a beginner's handle on writing poetry. Poetry is scary for many writers - these tips are appreciated.

    Karen Cioffi

  11. Great tips and advice for any writer!! Loved this. Thank you Carolyn! You are a treasure chest of insights.

    Dallas Woodburn

  12. I agree with Janet. Makes me want to write poems again, something I did for twenty years, but haven't done for another twenty! Great Post.