You’re Not As Far Behind as You Think You Are

Sometimes it feels like becoming a successful writer is a race to the finish line, but remember: you are the tortoise, not the hare.

Some days I feel like it takes all I can do to not fall behind on everything. It’s hard enough to go through the day to day — work, food, pets, bills, exercise, grocery shopping, errand running, sleeping, paying side hustle, non-paying side hustle (is it still a side-hustle, then?), editing, reading — you know, the usual list of a million things, give or take, that we all have rattling around in our brains.

I find when I have one of those days — days where I am working non-stop on x, y, or z and feel uber-productive before I turn to look at the clock and see how behind I am — I get caught up in feeling like I’m never going to get to where I want to be. I still have a,b,c,d, and the rest of the alphabet to get through. Why is getting to the end of the list taking so dang long?

Days like this make it particularly hard to not to get too far into my head. I can easily start to feel bad that I am so busy surviving that there is no room for creating. Sometimes I look at writers and creatives I admire and the astonishing number of things they have coming up — events, workshops, signings, releases, publications — and think to myself how on earth do they do it all? This goes for both agented full-time writers and unagented little writers like me who are trying to publish while stumbling now and then trying to build their list of writing credits.

Writing is hard. Life is hard. And we all have to deal with at least one of those things, even if you’re not a writer. So, there’s that.

Sometimes I have to remind myself of this. Writing is hard. That’s why so many people don’t do it. That’s why so many people give up and move on to something else. Yes, I have my day job which is one of the most un-writerly things I do day to day where I do math and create spreadsheets and update websites and maintain databases of complicated information and deal with state regulations. It’s hard, too, but in a different way. Yet a lot more people have jobs like mine than write, and I’m not giving up on the writing side of my life. At least not any time soon.

When you’re feeling as if you’ve fallen behind, remember that you’re actually ahead. You’re ahead of a lot of people who will never even try writing, and ahead of people who gave it a fair shot and still thought it was too hard. You’re right where you should be, not behind. Not for your personal writing journey and your ultimate destination.

So don’t get overwhelmed, tackle one thing at a time on that mile-long to-do list. And remember that writing is hard — if it was easy everyone would be doing it.

Previously published on Medium

Rituals

As with every writer, we like our habits, our certain ways and order. According to psychology studies, we are habitual animals to begin with. Habits are what keep us normal. Every writing ritual will be different from writer to writer, but that is what makes us different in our writing process from others. Our writing process is our own due to the habits we develop to write.

For my writing ritual, which I would like to share is doing a lot of different things and at random, but it is always the same things.

Here is my list: I keep a creative journal, but mostly filled with judgment on I see and the universe’s wisdom I hear.

  • I write a loooooot to prompts, usually to images of worlds I would love to live in
  • Reseaaarch a toooooon–you can never be too prepared.
  • Write different scenes of my book: I go from linear to circular all the time when writing. Linear writing is writing the book chronologically and straight through. Circular writing is moving from one chapter to a different chapter and not writing the story in order—writing and coloring in the lines isn’t always fun
  • Go for a hike or for a walk by the river, nature brings back the magic my pixie dust needs
  • Collaborate writing a poem or exquisite corpse with someone—gather other sentences to steal from other writers (there doesn’t have to be shame in that)
  • Read a book/poem/flash story—studying others always helps
  • Do a draft—get them creative juices flowing! Magic is more magical when there is more imagination 
  • Brainstorm alone or with a friend, two brains are truly better than one
  • Sit my butt in a chair and force myself to write no matter what! But writer’s block usually defeats me when I go head-to-head
  • Clean or garden–there is something about dirt and roots that transfers the worlds magic back into my hands
  • Sit down at an actual typewriter and bleed to the muses…which usually ends in shambles and with the keys getting stuck and the paper crumpled

Write in the comments below, I want to know and learn what your ritual is…

How do You Edit?

I am in the middle of furiously editing my novel manuscript, so editing is on my brain lately. As many writers will attest (me included!) editing is not always fun. I wouldn’t say it’s the bane of my existence exactly, but there are some days it comes pretty close.

As I have struggled through editing these past several weeks, I’ve been wondering how everyone does it. There seem to be a million different ways to edit, and that’s because, of course, there are a million different writers out there! Some writers have rough rough drafts, some writers have clean rough drafts. Some love getting into the nitty gritty of syntax, sentence structure, and grammar right away, whereas others put it off until the last minute or hire out someone else to take on line edits. There’s so much variation in how we, as writers, edit out stories, and so I’m curious: how do you edit?

Don’t worry, I’m not asking the question without planning to reciprocate and explain my own process so far. Here’s how I edit:

Read Everything

Much of my time so far has been taken up simply by re-reading all the words I wrote. It’s more time consuming than you would think, especially with a full-length novel draft. I’ve been going word by word (yes, all 70,000 something of them) and sentence by sentence, noticing where I let myself get too long winded (I’ve learned that my wordiness is my downfall) or where I didn’t make clear who I was writing about. Only after I work on making my prose less jumbly can I dive into the details of characterization and plot–at least, that’s how editing goes for me.

Identify Potholes

Here in Colorado, we have a lot of potholes. A lot of potholes. When you’re driving down the street, humming along to your favorite song and keeping an eye on traffic, sometimes it’s easy to miss the crater in the middle of your lane. And when you hit that crater, causing the steering wheel to jerk beyond your control momentarily, you send a little prayer up to heaven that your tire didn’t just spring a leak (at least, that’s what I do!)

When you’re writing your first draft, you’re often in a similar state of mind–typing happily away when you hit a good writing streak, paying attention to which words to use and the right punctuation for dialogue. Inevitably, you’re going to miss the potholes in your story. I know I did! As I’ve been going back through and reading everything, I’ve noticed the small spots in the story where I need to fill in some gaps, and I’ve also noticed the gaping holes in the road of my story where I changed someone’s name half way through or forgot a character was supposed to be dead less than a year, not more than three. You’re mind can get distracted when writing that first draft, so go back through and fill in those potholes so your future reader has a much smoother ride.

Figure Out What’s Lacking

I decided to use a new web-based software for my editing, Fictionary, this go around, and it’s helped me identify some parts of my writing that were lacking. The way the program is set up allows for you to note different sensory details, objects, and character motivations in every scene and chapter. While it’s not always the most intuitive in picking these things out (it is computer-based software, after all) I’ve found some of the questions it asks as I weed through each scene to be very helpful. I’ve learned that I don’t mention scent very often in my descriptions, something that I am aiming to focus on as I edit. On the flip side, I often use touch to describe things, which is something Fictionary doesn’t pick out as a particular thing to note. Either way, I’ve found it helpful to think through scenes in terms of what is and isn’t there. It’s helped me appreciate the things I am good at in drafting each scene, and strengthen my writing by picking out what’s missing again and again.

Now It’s Your Turn

Now that you’ve heard a little bit about my editing process so far, I want to hear from you! What are you currently editing? What’s the process been like for you so far as you make your way through this tedious process? And finally, what tips do you have to share? Although editing is still not my favorite thing in the world to do on a nice evening after work, I’m learning the value of it even more with a full-length manuscript, and I’m eager to hear your take.

Are You a Prose or Poetry Writer?

How do you choose?

Many people can argue that a writer is better fit to write either prose or poetry? Are they right? Others will argue that if you master writing poetry, than you can master writing prose, and you have the ability to write both. Are they right? If you are a beginner, how do you know where to start: poetry or prose? If you are a more experienced writer: how do you know if you really are meant to be a prose or poetry writer? In my own opinion, people can write both, but slant to writing one better.

Think of it this way, writing prose is like writing or being more suited to writing script. Prose is really any form of writing by putting words into a specific order for others to read like nonfiction and fiction genre writing. Poetry is really using figurative language to convey a message through verse, meter, rhythm and/or rhyme.

So ask yourself:

Are you more attracted to films/movies than stills/moments?

Do enjoy storytelling? Telling people stories from your life? Or stories you created?

Do you prefer to read stories over poems?

If you said yes to these questions, then you are more suited to writing prose over poetry. If you said no, you might slant more towards writing poetry. Prose writing are like films, we have before the action, the action, and then what happens after the action. In most poetry, we just have a slice of the moment, snapshot taken of the moment the poet has chosen to written.

Finding the right one…

Here is an exercise you can do: write down a creative thought, it could be a topic, a writing prompt, a moment of inspiration, something you want to write about whether it be poetry or prose. Now take that thought and list 20 words that communicate or describe the writing idea. Once you have those words, create and write! Use them in a poem less than 20 lines and in a short story less than 500 words.

Re-read each, which one was easier to write? Which one was harder to write? Which one is written better? Which form, poetry or prose, have you best communicated the creative thought?

Whichever is best is what you are more suited to or have more experience in writing. I have written fiction since I was nine. Stories about aliens coming from out of the sky to god-like beings raging war on earth with magic (I like fantasy) to also going to college to become a grim reaper in society as a job (please don’t steal my ideas). In college, (just a few years ago) I learned I was way better at poetry, even though I hated it since I was a child. Though some self-discovery with my writing self, I learned I am naturally more suited for writing poetry than what I was for fiction. My only struggle on writing prose is the structure and I write like I talk. From some reason on writing critics that is what confused people. When I write poetry, I found though there are rules, it is more my engaging to my brain and I have more independence for my creative mind to express what it wants more freely and spontaneously. Reading critics on my poetry come back more positive, I have even had poetry published in literary journals.

So how can you really tell if you are meant for poetry or prose?

Poetry is art, so are you more direct and straightforward with your writing? Do you like figurative language and the aesthetic properties of words and how to use them? Is your writing more moved by the beauty of language?

Prose is communication: is the form of writing longer than poetry? Does it consist of characters, narration, a plot, and is the reader moved by the message rather than the language?

It really boils down to your artistic sense, do you craft language to be read as art or do you craft a story to be unfold in a series of crafted letters and words? Who do you want as your audience, and how do you want to communicate to them? With musical language where meaning is conveyed through sounds or is the message more important than the language, which is prose.

Another exercise you can do, is to take the same exercise you did earlier and give it to a friend, family member, co-worker, even a stranger and have them read both the poem and story. What are their critics or takes on your writing? What does this tell you as a writer?

The beauty about writing is that it is not picky, you can marry it or divorce it, put it on the side and forget about it, or plant it and watch your words grow every day. So have fun with self-discovery on what kind of writer you were meant to be!

Previously published on HubPages.

How to Find Your Voice

What is it that separates good writers from mediocre ones? How does one make themself stand out in the midst of so many other writers in the world? Voice. Voice is sometimes elusive and sometimes hard to explain, but it is important to every great writer. Diction and voice go hand in hand, so do point of view and voice, but it’s not defined by any one thing. Voice is unique to each individual writer — you have a voice too — and it can make you stand out from the metaphorical crowd.


So if it’s so hard to explain, then what is voice? How do we, as writers, work on establishing our individual voices? Jennifer Sinor in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction explains voice as being defined by what is lacking. She says “Voice…is one of the most vital yet ephemeral qualities of writing. We can’t point to it on the page, pin it down, say that here, right here, in the way this sentence runs or in this choice of words or in this use of detail, we have a voice. Rather, we note its absence by the distance we feel from the writer, from the subject, or from the words on the page.” If you’ve done your fair share of reading (which you should have, if you are at all interested in becoming a writer), then you’ve likely identified an author’s voice in writers you‘ve come to love. Most often in my own examination of a work of literature, I notice voice when I see clever turns of phrases and ways of using words that just make sense. Voice makes a story flow on the page in a way that works and that gives insight into a character, narrator, or world perfectly.


Janet Burroway compares a writer’s voice with their audible voice in Imaginative Writing. Often, you can tell who is speaking — celebrity, family member, or friend — just by hearing the sound of their voice. We all have ways of speaking that differentiate us from each other. It may be that we say “uh” too often, have a southern twang to each syllable, or pronounce words uniquely so that they stick out when you hear them said. We lack the ability to hear words being said when we read, as writers, we have only the words on the page to develop our voice, and Burroway says, that this is done primarily through diction, which conveys “not only the facts but what we are to make of them, not only the situation but its emotional coloration, not only the identity but also the attitude of the person who speaks from the page.”


But how do we, as writers, write in such a way that makes our voice clear?
The most important step is to simply practice writing. As I recently heard from my boss (who is not a writer, I might add), writers write. So start writing! Experiment. Write from a third-person point of view and make your narrator a character in the story. Write the same scene a million different ways with a different tone each time. Make a character come across as snobby without describing them that way, make a character seem shy without describing them as quiet, figure out how to describe a character by only explaining their physical actions, and then try it all over again.


Developing your voice is hard work, and, as Burroway also says, “an author’s voice has a quality developed over time.” Your voice won’t become distinct overnight, you have to get to writing! So pull out your pen and notebook, or your laptop and your trusty fingertips, and get going. The best advice, for now, comes once again from Burroway (go read her book if you’re new to writing — there is much to learn from her skilled essays and prompts) — “seek to voice, and your voice will follow.”


We live in a world where there are a million voices coming at us every day — a mile a minute — so cultivate your own garden of words and your voice will grow. One day, and one word, at a time.

Previously published in The Creative Cafe

8 Books to Read This Year to Improve Writing

John Steinbeck—A Russian’s Journal—1948

Norman Mailer—The Armies of the Night—1968

Joan Didion—Play it as it Lays—1970

Brian Turner—Here Bullet—2005

Mohsin Hamid—The Reluctant Fundamentalist—2007

Flannery O’ Connor—The Violent Bear it Away—1955

William Gibson—Neuromancer—1984

James Baldwin—Notes of a Native Son—1955

Why? Here is what you can learn from these authors and their writing:

Steinbeck

If you break his sentences down, record his syntax, find his diction, and watch for his descriptions, you’ll learn a lot from this author. Steinbeck is famous for simple syntax and diction that contrasts his complex descriptions. There are six keys things to his writing: 

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

For more check out the article here: 

Also a great insight is The Paris Review. They interview authors, and get the in-depth reasoning of how they view their own writing.

Mailer

Mailer can teach you many journalistic techniques in this book. He also refers to himself in the third person. He uses very complex syntax and imagery filled with lots and lots of thoughts and beliefs and values. 

Here is another interview with The Paris Review for more reading!

Didion

Didion can teach you how to write in a masculine syntax, the same syntax and descriptions as Steinbeck. Didion even admits she broke Steinbeck’s sentences down to understand them and learn how to write like him. She writes fiction like nonfiction, and can be intimate as well as distant with her characters. She also often omits commas and has very short chapters within this novel. 

Here is more reading on Joan Didion’s fiction on The Paris Review and here is an article about her nonfiction.

11 Writing Tips From Joan Didion, Because She Knows A Thing Or Two About It (from Bustle.com

1. “Novels are like paintings, specifically watercolors. Every stroke you put down you have to go with. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.”

2.  “Yes, and the last sentence in a piece is another adventure. It should open the piece up. It should make you go back and start reading from page one.”

3. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

4. “The impulse to write things down is a particularly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

5. “It’s hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

6. “Let me tell you one thing about why writers write: had I known the answer to any of these questions I would never have needed to write a novel.”

7. “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.”

8. 8. “As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs… The way I write is who I am, or have become…”

9. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

10. “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it. Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.”

11. “I think of writing anything at all as a kind of high-wire act. The minute you start putting words on paper you’re eliminating possibilities.”

Turner

He is a poet. Turner can teach you how to observe from the outside and describe the details from the inside. He uses strong images and strong metaphors to explain the world. 

You can check him out here.

Hamid

In this book, Hamid can teach you how to place the setting and how to position the gender of the narrator; how to use archetypes to exchange with the story, and how to set the tone of a story. 

See more about his writing style and thoughts here.

O’Connor

If you want to write a confusing and complex story that confuses the hell out of your reader, then read this book to learn how twisted your readers can get over what you write. Also, if you want to learn how to write a story set in the 1950s, this is a great book to learn the diction of the time. She uses repetitive images throughout to carry the theme of the book as well. 

Check out her thoughts on style here at The Paris Review, and here.

Or take a look at eight writing tips from Flannery O’Conner.

Gibson

If you want to learn how to write Cyberpunk, here you go. Gibson is kind of the forefather to this genre even though he refuses the title. The great thing about Cyberpunk is it can teach a writer how to create complex descriptions about a single thing using several figurative language techniques. These quotes are both from his book:

“His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.” 

“A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he cut in Night City, and he’d still see the matrix in his dreams, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colourless void… The Sprawl was a long, strange way home now over the Pacific, and he was no Console Man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, hands clawed into the bedslab, temper foam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.” 

His book and writing style is very dense. Here is his interview with The Paris Review.

Lastly, Baldwin

What’s makes his writing so unique is the eloquence of his syntax and his rhetorical attack of any topic. Baldwin really lets readers view the world the way he views the world. His sentences may be short, but they are packed with dynamite syntax. He likes to write a sentence that has heart–making the reader feel. Despite this, his style was criticized for being over-bearing, too moral, and too direct with any moral statements. Most of the topics he writes about are morally complex, so if you want a character who can be complex with morals, learn from the nonfiction of Baldwin.

His history and upbringing also make him an interesting writer. Check out his interview with The Paris Review here.

The Argument for White Space in Poetry—Why do we need it?

I admit it. I was a white/blank space dissenter. A true non-believer. Why must there be blankness in poetry? Isn’t that artificial? SOOOO—overdone and an artsy cliché. As I’ve read and dived into craft, however, I am beginning to become a white/blank space advocate. Now, I admit there is purpose and necessity.

White space or blank space is when the poet or author uses blankness or emptiness to visually create an aesthetic. It is purposeful. Poetry is both seen and heard/spoken. That blankness also creates lack of sound or changes the sound. This makes writing dynamic—visually, orally, and audibly. The term white space comes from the idiom “the blank white page.” This is also true of the term blank space. Both are correct and can be used interchangeably. There are many types and variations of white/blank space. Examples are endless. I suggest trying some in your verse or prose—slide in an extra tap of the return key or an extra indent.

I am going to explain only a few of the reasons to use white/blank space—I believe them to be the most important and the most used, and more importantly, the most relevant. I will explain the reasons for indentation and collapsing the frame, putting space between words in the same line, and creating stanzas (both why a new stanza and what it does it do when adding that space).

Collapsing the frame sounds like taking a photo and crushing it to pieces—and in a sense that is what will happen to the poem or flash fiction that is being condensed spatially. I usually use a 1-inch margin, many lit mags provide guidelines as well, but by condensing the frame a square or box becomes apparent. Lines bleed together. When read, the pacing is fast, breathless even, and individual words pop out, but do not linger. There is no hesitation. Visually, this creates a capsule. It shows potency and density. Prose poems and flash fiction benefit particularly from this method. 

Timothy Liu is an excellent example of collapsing the frame. “What the Magdalene Saw,” in Typo he writes:

on thread-bare sheets to shroud a beat-up
mattress scarred with tiny cigarette burns
as towel-wrapped lunchtime gents line up
outside the door–peccadilloes that turn

The imagery is dynamic in of itself, but the white/blank space creates a cramped look on the page and a jarring pace while being read. If you want poetry or prose to a have power, collapsing the frame is a valuable and sometimes necessary tool.

Indentation is a variable of collapsing the frame. I mention it more for prose writers, but the technique can be just as formidable in poetry. An indent creates or signals a new line or sentence, and arguably a new thought. This is completely true, but visually, the indent allows the reader to blink and for the prose to appear less daunting and dense. This is the opposite of the collapsing of margins. Indenting gives space and pause and lets both the last word from above and the first word starting the line/sentence to be highlighted. In poetry, the same is true of the visual. However, by indenting the line, the pause is highlighted more than the words leading up to it and the word that follows.

Placing white/blank space in the line allows for pause and reflection on each individual word. In poetry, each space represents a pause to the reader. This means that the pause will be accented as well. e.e. Cummings is well-known for unconventional craftmanship, but “Crepuscule” is a brief example of what white/blank space does to the line. He writes:

I will wade out
                                 till my thighs are steeped in burn-
ing flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth

The poem continues on, allowing images to settle on page and words reverberate on the tongue. If a word or phrase needs to resonate, this tool is effective. While it is used in poetry, it can powerfully create drama and builds intrigue in prose work. Speculative fiction and genre bending writing would greatly benefit from this technique, but as with all creating, imagination is limitless and so are the possibilities.

Finally, stanzas create dynamic and jarring pauses both on the physical page and when read aloud. This is important because emphasis and readability need to be remembered when writing. If there are many short stanzas, the pace is broken up repeatedly. This is good if you want thoughts to linger, bad if you want to have more movement down the page. If there are no stanzas, the pace is usually less broken and a box shape is created. This means the poem will read fast and that the end word of lines will be heightened. Stanzas can be viewed as small scenes, the white/blank space encapsulating and separating images.

There are no wrong choices. But, every poet/writer/author should know why they are choosing a particular method and what the effect of the tool is. There are happy accidents, but nothing beats creating with authority and knowledge.

“Sit down. Take a deep breath. Let’s talk punctuation in poetry.”

There is nothing better than chatting about poetry—that is until we get to “grammar.” In hushed tones, “Do poems NEED grammar? Is it required? What about semi-colons? What about…?”

Hush. This is a very common question. I’m not saying it’s easy to know which punctuation mark, if any you want for your line—but let me explain the options.

First. No, you do not need punctuation. Second. Maybe you want punctuation? This is the traditional and most chosen option.

“But what does it DO?” It all depends on sound. Poems are meant to be read out loud. For thousands of years, longer, we have spoken in rhyme, sung melodies and stories, OUT LOUD. Yes, before there was written language, but also, because of the sound of words. So, punctuation, or lack of it, is all about when to breathe and how a word gets accented at the end of the line.

So—no punctuation and perhaps no capitalization creates a mad rush of sound. A WHOOSH. I would sail right down the page no pausing even if punctuation might be grammatically correct and you would hear passion and lack of air. And if that mad dash and fast pace is what you want terrific! Lucille Clifton is an amazing example. In “the garden of delight” she does not use punctuation or capitalization. Her first stanza:

for some
it is stone
bare smooth
as a buttock
rounding
into the crevasse
of the world

When I read it is a passionate downward rush. There is nothing wrong with lingering from word to word—but that varies by individual. Usually, punctuation shows someone else how to read your poem.

Punctuation in poetry comes down to three techniques. One: no punctuation and no pause. Two: Slight pause and continuation to the next line. Three: End-Stop which halts the line and creates a complete pause.

So, Scenario One, we basically covered. No pause. That means the line is enjambed and the first line is read without breath to the next line. This builds speed. You still want to end an enjambed line on a strong word though. Our minds are tricky and they will pick up if you end on a weak word like “a” or “an.” If it is vital for your poem do it! If it is not—refrain.

An example of enjambment would be several lines in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Love Song.” This is a translation from German, but the enjambment is fairly accurate from the German

How shall I hold my soul, that it may not
be touching yours? How shall I lift it then
above you to where other things are waiting?
Ah, gladly would I lodge it, all forgot,
with some lost thing the dark is isolating
on some remote and silent spot that, when
your depths vibrate, is not itself vibrating.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?


Where there is no punctuation, it is enjambed. Having lines that alternate create a mild tone and cadence.

Scenario Two—the slight pause. This is slightly dramatic, gives a breath. I would say that the punctation to do this (and there will be some discussion and disagreement) is the m-dash. That is the double—line that is two hyphens. It works beautifully to merge end-stop and no punctuation. When reading, there is a lingering on the word and then a quick enjambment. This is the true in-between. The other, which I feel would be more controversial in-between is the ellipses. That’s the dramatic… Yes—it can be end-stop. But I think in the middle of the poem in provides a slight pause that leads into the next line, much like the m-dash. The colon and semi-colon are also argued about. They create a larger pause—but cause a continuation. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372)” is a terrific example. The dashes can be read as end-stops or as I read them, slight pauses.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

Scenario Three: The End-Stop. Okay then—what does that do? It stops your line. Of course, right? But, when you read out loud, it creates a place to breathe. A real pause. The comma is arguably end-stop. There is a breath—a long one, but not as long as if a period or question mark was there. So, before we get confused, these are the end-stop punctuations: the period, the question mark, arguably as mentioned the semi-colon and colon, the ampersand sign, parenthesis (arguably), slashes, brackets []. and what seem to be also called brackets or less and greater signs < >. Of course, there are more, but these are the main ones. All these punctation marks create a huge LINE ENDING pause.

So, you want to end on a very, very strong word. It will resonate and be emphasized. “Are you the new person drawn toward me?” by Walt Whitman is made up of entirely end-stop lines.

Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?

Try reading a poem you’ve written out loud. You’ll hear natural breaks and rhythms. You can choose to go with these, or you can break the sound with any of the scenarios above. Make sure you are CHOOSING though—there are happy accidents, but it’s best to know why you are breaking or not breaking your line.

Now go forth! To enjamb or not enjamb—that is no longer the question!

What Makes a Good Poem?

When you think of poetry, your mind might go to the classics. Perhaps to Homer’s The Odyssey or to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — both epic stories told in meter and reflected in the tropes of modern storytelling still used today.

Or maybe when you think of poetry your mind travels to the sonnets of Shakespeare and the religiosity of Donne’s work.

Perhaps you are like many who only recently discovered the beauty of poetry on Instagram, seeing the blaring white background of a poem in a picture, the black typewritten words of Rupi Kaur or Nikita Gill sitting on the screen.

Poetry has always provoked emotion. It pricks at the corners of our minds that long to feel. It wakes up sentiments in our hearts that have long been hiding under a pillow, attempting to ignore the alarm clock screeching to wake them up.

But what makes poetry work this way?

What makes ancient Italian sonnets as heart wringing as modern free verse? What brings readers back again to read the words of Emily Dickinson for the one hundredth time and elicits an audible gasp when hearing spoken word read aloud?

As the poetry editor of borrowed solace: a journal of literary ramblings, I have read a lot of poems. Each reading period, we receive hundreds of unsolicited poetry submissions for consideration. Much of the poetry is good. It fits the form of what a poem should be and uses intricate language, leaning on literary devices to create a vivid image. But not all of the poems we receive are great — we have about a 5% acceptance rate when all is said and done (which is quite high considering how few prose pieces are accepted.)

So what catapults a poem from the slush pile to the accepted pile with a note slapped on the side it’s a favorite of the bunch?

More often than not it’s what isn’t said.

With poetry, less is more.

Being able to evoke strong images and bring out even the most buried of emotions in the reader is a feature that I believe poetry excels at. That blaring white background is where the real work in poetry takes place. There’s more reading between the lines than ever in a poem — the actual words on the page are few and far between.

The poems that do not make it into the journal are the ones trying to tell a fiction or nonfiction story in poem form.

I don’t need the whole sordid tale to be included in a poem, I need the moments that make the heartbreak clear, the milliseconds of elated joy that leave the speaker speechless. I don’t need the whole story, I need the best (or worst) parts.

As someone who also writes poetry as well as prose, this can be hard. It’s often so much easier to spell everything out, to leave the “he saids” and the “she looked” in a poem that is trying to tell a story from start to finish. If you struggle with this, maybe the experience or topic you’re jittering to write about isn’t meant to be a poem. Maybe it wants to be a short story. Maybe it needs to be a personal essay.

Poets who succeed today at writing the best poems are not the ones writing epics in iambic pentameter. Maybe that’s an experiment worth attempting, but it’s not what will capture a reader’s spirit upon reading a sparse few stanzas.

Learn how to utilize what’s not said. Learn how to capture the moments and images that beg to be captured and leave the rest behind. Find the essence of what you want to record and record that essence, but leave behind the rest.

That is what makes for a good poem.

Previously published in Bookishly.

Why You Should Read Poetry

I used to have an aversion to poetry. To me it was an odd form of writing, prose’s ugly stepsister that no one actually wanted to read. If someone did want to, or actually liked to, read poetry, I always thought they were the artsy types – people who were able to see beauty in places where it wasn’t actually present. The type of people who liked poetry also seemed like the type who went to an art gallery to admire crazy abstract artwork that they somehow found a whole story told within (I can’t say I’ve ever quite understood abstract artwork either).

When I started college, this all changed. As an English Literature major, reading and analyzing poetry is a huge part of what I do. At first, this scared me – I wasn’t sure I could get over that aversion and actually find something to say about the poems we studied in class – but eventually I came to love poetry.

In one of my early British Literature classes, we were tasked with taking one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and finding an unstable word within it. This word was supposed to be one that had numerous meanings. It was a word that, depending on its interpretation, could change the meaning of the entire poem. My word ended up being somewhat of a failure. I got a good grade on my essay, but my focus was too narrow – there were only a couple different interpretations of the word I picked (the word was tempest, I believe) and so it fell a bit short. Going over the assignment in class, however, and hearing the different ways our professor was able to perform this task in an entirely different sonnet made me realize how wonderful poetry could be.

That semester we wrote three essays total, and I wrote two of mine on poems. The class really made me realize how wonderful poetry can be, and it got rid of my aversion to the artform very quickly. I’ve since learned that poetry is a beautiful means of communicating and that poems tell a story in a way that nothing else can. If you have an aversion to poetry like I did, you should give poetry a try. Here are six poets you should read to start off with, but by no means should you stop there!

Emily Dickinson

If you’re familiar with American poetry at all, then you have probably heard of Emily Dickinson. She wrote more, though, than “Because I could not stop for Death – He Kindly stopped for me -” the poem that everyone seems to cover in high school and always associate with Dickinson. Reading her poetry is a real treat with all the different ways she uses punctuation and capitalization – something that for a long time was always fixed when her poetry was published but is now left as is. To start off with, read her poems “1129” and “1053” (none of Dickinson’s poems have titles, but are numbered instead).

Herman Melville

Everyone knows Herman Melville for “Moby Dick”- considered the quintessential American novel – but he also was a poet. I am partial to older poets and poetry, probably due to my literature studies, and I love to read Melville’s poetry because of the historical aspect. He’s writing around the time of the Civil War, and his poetry covers different topics that relate to the tensions across America during that time. Read “Shiloh” and “The March into Virginia” for a different look at history.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I have a book called “The Treasury of American Poetry” that I purchased at a thrift store that has introduced me to tons of new poets and poems that I have fallen in love with. One of the poets in this book is Edna St. Vincent Millay. She writes in sonnet form at times, and other times her poems are only a couple of lines long, but they are all breathtakingly beautiful. Start off with “I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear” – a poem that I love so much it has been underlined in my book and turned into artwork to hang on my wall.

Ogden Nash

Ogden Nash is another poet that I was introduced to through “The Treasury of American Poetry.” His poems vary in length, and are all on very interesting topics. To start off with, read “The Anatomy of Happiness” for an amusing take on what it means to be happy.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of those poets who everyone has heard of. He was a hugely influential writer during the Harlem Renaissance and his work is an important part of literary history. I remember studying him in high school and I’ve studied his work again in college. Hughes is a poet who, like Herman Melville, writes about the time in which he was living. Reading Hughes is like taking a glimpse into the past – often the parts of America’s past that are sometimes shocking to look at. One of the poems that stuck with me from high school that Hughes wrote is “I, Too.”

Yusef Komunyakaa

I was lucky enough to meet and get to hear from this amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning poet last December (he is an alum of my university and was published in our literary journal in the 1970s) and his work is spectacular! For some of his most anthologies poems, read “February in Sydney,” and “Facing It,” but to read some of his newest works, take a look at his collection called “The Emperor of Water Clocks.”

Whether you are a tried and true fan of poetry, or tend to stay away from the literary form, poetry is really worth your time. Taking a look at some of the more well known and lesser known poets throughout American history is always a good place to start, and may just make you become a poetry enthusiast.

Originally published on Odyssey.