To learn how to write a poem step-by-step, let’s start where all poets start: the basics.
This article is an in-depth introduction to how to write a poem. We first answer the question, “What is poetry?” We then discuss the literary elements of poetry, and showcase some different approaches to the writing process—including our own seven-step process on how to write a poem step by step.
So, how do you write a poem? Let’s start with what poetry is.
What Poetry Is
It’s important to know what poetry is—and isn’t—before we discuss how to write a poem. The following quote defines poetry nicely:
“Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
—Former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove
Poetry Conveys Feeling
People sometimes imagine poetry as stuffy, abstract, and difficult to understand. Some poetry may be this way, but in reality poetry isn’t about being obscure or confusing. Poetry is a lyrical, emotive method of self-expression, using the elements of poetry to highlight feelings and ideas.
A poem should make the reader feel something.
In other words, a poem should make the reader feel something—not by telling them what to feel, but by evoking feeling directly.
Here’s a contemporary poem that, despite its simplicity (or perhaps because of its simplicity), conveys heartfelt emotion.
by Langston HughesI loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.
Poetry is Language at its Richest and Most Condensed
Unlike longer prose writing (such as a short story, memoir, or novel), poetry needs to impact the reader in the richest and most condensed way possible. Here’s a famous quote that enforces that distinction:
“Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
So poetry isn’t the place to be filling in long backstories or doing leisurely scene-setting. In poetry, every single word carries maximum impact.
Poetry Uses Unique Elements
Poetry is not like other kinds of writing: it has its own unique forms, tools, and principles. Together, these elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
The elements of poetry help it to powerfully impact the reader in only a few words.
Most poetry is written in verse, rather than prose. This means that it uses line breaks, alongside rhythm or meter, to convey something to the reader. Rather than letting the text break at the end of the page (as prose does), verse emphasizes language through line breaks.
Poetry further accentuates its use of language through rhyme and meter. Poetry has a heightened emphasis on the musicality of language itself: its sounds and rhythms, and the feelings they carry.
These devices—rhyme, meter, and line breaks—are just a few of the essential elements of poetry, which we’ll explore in more depth now.
Understanding the Elements of Poetry
As we explore how to write a poem step by step, these three major literary elements of poetry should sit in the back of your mind:
- Rhythm (Sound, Rhyme, and Meter)
- Literary Devices
1. Elements of Poetry: Rhythm
“Rhythm” refers to the lyrical, sonic qualities of the poem. How does the poem move and breathe; how does it feel on the tongue?
Traditionally, poets relied on rhyme and meter to accomplish a rhythmically sound poem. Free verse poems—which are poems that don’t require a specific length, rhyme scheme, or meter—only became popular in the West in the 20th century, so while rhyme and meter aren’t requirements of modern poetry, they are required of certain poetry forms.
Poetry is capable of evoking certain emotions based solely on the sounds it uses. Words can sound sinister, percussive, fluid, cheerful, dour, or any other noise/emotion in the complex tapestry of human feeling.
Take, for example, this excerpt from the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman:
Red — “b” sounds
Blue — “th” sounds
Green — “w” and “ew” sounds
Purple — “s” sounds
Orange — “d” and “t” sounds
This poem has a lot of percussive, disruptive sounds that reinforce the beating of the drums. The “b,” “d,” “w,” and “t” sounds resemble these drum beats, while the “th” and “s” sounds are sneakier, penetrating a deeper part of the ear. The cacophony of this excerpt might not sound “lyrical,” but it does manage to command your attention, much like drums beating through a city might sound.
To learn more about consonance and assonance, euphony and cacophony, and the other uses of sound, take a look at our article “12 Literary Devices in Poetry.”
It would be a crime if you weren’t primed on the ins and outs of rhymes. “Rhyme” refers to words that have similar pronunciations, like this set of words: sound, hound, browned, pound, found, around.
Many poets assume that their poetry has to rhyme, and it’s true that some poems require a complex rhyme scheme. However, rhyme isn’t nearly as important to poetry as it used to be. Most traditional poetry forms—sonnets, villanelles, rimes royal, etc.—rely on rhyme, but contemporary poetry has largely strayed from the strict rhyme schemes of yesterday.
There are three types of rhymes:
- Homophony: Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same, like “tail” and “tale.” Homophones often lead to commonly misspelled words.
- Perfect Rhyme: Perfect rhymes are word pairs that are identical in sound except for one minor difference. Examples include “slant and pant,” “great and fate,” and “shower and power.”
- Slant Rhyme: Slant rhymes are word pairs that use the same sounds, but their final vowels have different pronunciations. For example, “abut” and “about” are nearly-identical in sound, but are pronounced differently enough that they don’t completely rhyme. This is also known as an oblique rhyme or imperfect rhyme.
Meter refers to the stress patterns of words. Certain poetry forms require that the words in the poem follow a certain stress pattern, meaning some syllables are stressed and others are unstressed.
What is “stressed” and “unstressed”? A stressed syllable is the sound that you emphasize in a word. The bolded syllables in the following words are stressed, and the unbolded syllables are unstressed:
The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is important to traditional poetry forms. This chart, copied from our article on form in poetry, summarizes the different stress patterns of poetry.
2. Elements of Poetry: Form
“Form” refers to the structure of the poem. Is the poem a sonnet, a villanelle, a free verse piece, a slam poem, a contrapuntal, a ghazal, a blackout poem, or something new and experimental?
Form also refers to the line breaks and stanza breaks in a poem. Unlike prose, where the end of the page decides the line breaks, poets have control over when one line ends and a new one begins. The words that begin and end each line will emphasize the sounds, images, and ideas that are important to the poet.
To learn more about rhyme, meter, and poetry forms, read our full article on the topic:
3. Elements of Poetry: Literary Devices
“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
How does poetry express complex ideas in concise, lyrical language? Literary devices—like metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, irony, and hyperbole—help make poetry possible. Learn how to write and master these devices here:
How to Write a Poem, in 7 Steps
To condense the elements of poetry into an actual poem, we’re going to follow a seven-step approach. However, it’s important to know that every poet’s process is different. While the steps presented here are a logical path to get from idea to finished poem, they’re not the only tried-and-true method of poetry writing. Poets can—and should!—modify these steps and generate their own writing process.
Nonetheless, if you’re new to writing poetry or want to explore a different writing process, try your hand at our approach. Here’s how to write a poem step by step!
1. Devise a Topic
The easiest way to start writing a poem is to begin with a topic.
However, devising a topic is often the hardest part. What should your poem be about? And where can you find ideas?
Here are a few places to search for inspiration:
- Other Works of Literature: Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s part of a larger literary tapestry, and can absolutely be influenced by other works. For example, read “The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes, a poem that was inspired by Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”
- Real-World Events: Poetry, especially contemporary poetry, has the power to convey new and transformative ideas about the world. Take the poem “A Cigarette” by Ilya Kaminsky, which finds community in a warzone like the eye of a hurricane.
- Your Life: What would poetry be if not a form of memoir? Many contemporary poets have documented their lives in verse. Take Sylvia Plath’s poem “Full Fathom Five”—a daring poem for its time, as few writers so boldly criticized their family as Plath did.
- The Everyday and Mundane: Poetry isn’t just about big, earth-shattering events: much can be said about mundane events, too. Take “Ode to Shea Butter” by Angel Nafis, a poem that celebrates the beautiful “everydayness” of moisturizing.
- Nature: The Earth has always been a source of inspiration for poets, both today and in antiquity. Take “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver, which finds meaning in nature’s quiet rituals.
- Writing Exercises: Prompts and exercises can help spark your creativity, even if the poem you write has nothing to do with the prompt! Here’s 24 writing exercises to get you started.
At this point, you’ve got a topic for your poem. Maybe it’s a topic you’re passionate about, and the words pour from your pen and align themselves into a perfect sonnet! It’s not impossible—most poets have a couple of poems that seemed to write themselves.
However, it’s far more likely you’re searching for the words to talk about this topic. This is where journaling comes in.
Sit in front of a blank piece of paper, with nothing but the topic written on the top. Set a timer for 15-30 minutes and put down all of your thoughts related to the topic. Don’t stop and think for too long, and try not to obsess over finding the right words: what matters here is emotion, the way your subconscious grapples with the topic.
At the end of this journaling session, go back through everything you wrote, and highlight whatever seems important to you: well-written phrases, poignant moments of emotion, even specific words that you want to use in your poem.
Journaling is a low-risk way of exploring your topic without feeling pressured to make it sound poetic. “Sounding poetic” will only leave you with empty language: your journal allows you to speak from the heart. Everything you need for your poem is already inside of you, the journaling process just helps bring it out!
3. Think About Form
As one of the elements of poetry, form plays a crucial role in how the poem is both written and read. Have you ever wanted to write a sestina? How about a contrapuntal, or a double cinquain, or a series of tanka? Your poem can take a multitude of forms, including the beautifully unstructured free verse form; while form can be decided in the editing process, it doesn’t hurt to think about it now.
4. Write the First Line
After a productive journaling session, you’ll be much more acquainted with the state of your heart. You might have a line in your journal that you really want to begin with, or you might want to start fresh and refer back to your journal when you need to! Either way, it’s time to begin.
What should the first line of your poem be? There’s no strict rule here—you don’t have to start your poem with a certain image or literary device. However, here’s a few ways that poets often begin their work:
- Set the Scene: Poetry can tell stories just like prose does. Anne Carson does just this in her poem “Lines,” situating the scene in a conversation with the speaker’s mother.
- Start at the Conflict: Right away, tell the reader where it hurts most. Margaret Atwood does this in “Ghost Cat,” a poem about aging.
- Start With a Contradiction: Juxtaposition and contrast are two powerful tools in the poet’s toolkit. Joan Larkin’s poem “Want” begins and ends with these devices. Carlos Gimenez Smith also begins his poem “Entanglement” with a juxtaposition.
- Start With Your Title: Some poets will use the title as their first line, like Ron Padgett’s poem “Ladies and Gentlemen in Outer Space.”
There are many other ways to begin poems, so play around with different literary devices, and when you’re stuck, turn to other poetry for inspiration.
5. Develop Ideas and Devices
You might not know where your poem is going until you finish writing it. In the meantime, stick to your literary devices. Avoid using too many abstract nouns, develop striking images, use metaphors and similes to strike interesting comparisons, and above all, speak from the heart.
6. Write the Closing Line
Some poems end “full circle,” meaning that the images the poet used in the beginning are reintroduced at the end. Gwendolyn Brooks does this in her poem “my dreams, my work, must wait till after hell.”
Yet, many poets don’t realize what their poems are about until they write the ending line. Poetry is a search for truth, especially the hard truths that aren’t easily explained in casual speech. Your poem, too, might not be finished until it comes across a necessary truth, so write until you strike the heart of what you feel, and the poem will come to its own conclusion.
7. Edit, Edit, Edit!
Do you have a working first draft of your poem? Congratulations! Getting your feelings onto the page is a feat in itself.
Yet, no guide on how to write a poem is complete without a note on editing. If you plan on sharing or publishing your work, or if you simply want to edit your poem to near-perfection, keep these tips in mind.
- Adjectives and Adverbs: Use these parts of speech sparingly. Most imagery shouldn’t rely on adjectives and adverbs, because the image should be striking and vivid on its own, without too much help from excess language.
- Concrete Line Breaks: Line breaks help emphasize important words, making certain images and ideas clearer to the reader. As a general rule, most of your lines should start and end with concrete words—nouns and verbs especially.
- Stanza Breaks: Stanzas are like paragraphs to poetry. A stanza can develop a new idea, contrast an existing idea, or signal a transition in the poem’s tone. Make sure each stanza clearly stands for something as a unit of the poem.
- Mixed Metaphors: A mixed metaphor is when two metaphors occupy the same idea, making the poem unnecessarily difficult to understand. Here’s an example of a mixed metaphor: “a watched clock never boils.” The meaning can be discerned, but the image remains unclear. Be wary of mixed metaphors—though some poets (like Shakespeare) make them work, they’re tricky and often disruptive.
- Abstractions: Above all, avoid using excessively abstract language. It’s fine to use the word “love” 2 or 3 times in a poem, but don’t use it twice in every stanza. Let the imagery in your poem express your feelings and ideas, and only use abstractions as brief connective tissue in otherwise-concrete writing.
Lastly, don’t feel pressured to “do something” with your poem. Not all poems need to be shared and edited. Poetry doesn’t have to be “good,” either—it can simply be a statement of emotions by the poet, for the poet. Publishing is an admirable goal, but also, give yourself permission to write bad poems, unedited poems, abstract poems, and poems with an audience of one. Write for yourself—editing is for the other readers.
How to Write a Poem: Different Approaches and Philosophies
Poetry is the oldest literary form, pre-dating prose, theater, and the written word itself. As such, there are many different schools of thought when it comes to writing poetry. You might be wondering how to write a poem through different methods and approaches: here’s four philosophies to get you started.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Emotion
If you asked a Romantic Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the spontaneous emotion of the soul.
The Romantic Era viewed poetry as an extension of human emotion—a way of perceiving the world through unbridled creativity, centered around the human soul. While many Romantic poets used traditional forms in their poetry, the Romantics weren’t afraid to break from tradition, either.
To write like a Romantic, feel—and feel intensely. The words will follow the emotions, as long as a blank page sits in front of you.
How to Write a Poem: Poetry as Stream of Consciousness
If you asked a Modernist poet, “What is poetry?” they would tell you that poetry is the search for complex truths.
Modernist Poets were keen on the use of poetry as a window into the mind. A common technique of the time was “Stream of Consciousness,” which is unfiltered writing that flows directly from the poet’s inner dialogue. By tapping into one’s subconscious, the poet might uncover deeper truths and emotions they were initially unaware of.
Depending on who you are as a writer, Stream of Consciousness can be tricky to master, but this guide covers the basics of how to write using this technique.
How to Write a Poem: Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice of documenting the mind, rather than trying to control or edit what it produces. This practice was popularized by the Beat Poets, who in turn were inspired by Eastern philosophies and Buddhist teachings. If you asked a Beat Poet “what is poetry?”, they would tell you that poetry is the human consciousness, unadulterated.
To learn more about the art of leaving your mind alone, take a look at our guide on Mindfulness, from instructor Marc Olmsted.
How to Write a Poem: Poem as Camera Lens
Many contemporary poets use poetry as a camera lens, documenting global events and commenting on both politics and injustice. If you find yourself itching to write poetry about the modern day, press your thumb against the pulse of the world and write what you feel.
Additionally, check out these two essays by Electric Literature on the politics of poetry:
- What Can Poetry Do That Politics Can’t?
- Why All Poems Are Political (TL;DR: Poetry is an urgent expression of freedom).
Okay, I Know How to Write a Good Poem. What Next?
Poetry, like all art forms, takes practice and dedication. You might write a poem you enjoy now, and think it’s awfully written 3 years from now; you might also write some of your best work after reading this guide. Poetry is fickle, but the pen lasts forever, so write poems as long as you can!
Once you understand how to write a poem, and after you’ve drafted some pieces that you’re proud of and ready to share, here are some next steps you can take.
Publish in Literary Journals
Want to see your name in print? These literary journals house some of the best poetry being published today.
Assemble and Publish a Manuscript
A poem can tell a story. So can a collection of poems. If you’re interested in publishing a poetry book, learn how to compose and format one here:
Join a Writing Community
Poetry doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists to educate and uplift society. The world is waiting for your voice, so find a group and share your work!