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Poetry is one of those art forms that, despite its popularity, can be incredibly intimidating to write. In its most basic form, poetry is distilled language, and that means that you have to know how to write a poem before you can write a good poem. Luckily, there are a few techniques that all writers can use to learn how to write a free verse poem. While there are specific types of free verse poems, and specific rules that you can follow, there are also guidelines that all poems follow, and knowing those guidelines will help you craft a free verse poem that is both functional and evocative.
- 1 Figure out a structure for your free verse poem
- 2 Engender a prevailing tone
- 3 Choose word-flow that compliments your poem
- 4 Involve emotional fluidity
- 5 Embody the emotion
- 6 Choose a special effect for your free verse poem
- 7 Plan your poem with line-breaks
- 8 Use spaces to reveal words, not to separate them
- 9 Use punctuation to give clues
- 10 Aim for sense-scheme and end-stops
- 11 Point of view is critical
- 12 Experiment with dialogue
- 13 Use words that evoke strong images
- 14 Mind the length
- 15 Prefer less-is-more
- 16 Pace your poem properly
- 17 Don’t overwrite
- 18 Be transparent in your communication with the reader
- 19 Make talking to your audience fun
- 20 Speak from the heart
- 21 Finish something
- 22 Get feedback
- 23 Join the Commaful Storytelling Community
Figure out a structure for your free verse poem
If you’ve chosen to write a free verse poem, it’s very likely that you’re intrigued by the style’s ability to portray powerful poems that narrate personal experiences or world events. When you think about how to write a free verse poem, the first step is figuring out how you’ll structure that poem. Notice that the goal of free verse is structure, not structurelessness. With the lack of rules that govern structure in free verse poems, most writers take the reins themselves, dedicating themselves to making a free verse poem’s form match its content. There are two ways to build the structure of a free verse poem. The first way is to base it around the content that you want to say. The second way is to base it around the emotion that you’re experiencing. If you want to write a poem that tells a story, begin with an image, action, or emotion. From there, build the poem around the concept that you’ll elaborate on.
If you’re trying to write a free verse poem that is not narrative, but is evocative instead, build your poem’s structure around the mood you wish to convey. You can even inject in other stylistic tools, like symbolism, metaphors, and allusions, to give your free verse poem more substance. In the end, free verse poems aren’t so much about structure as they are about form. This form is not limited to patterns on a page — it can be just as physical as it is emotional. As free verse became popular, poets flocked to the style to have more venues to show their poems. If you’re confident in how to write a free verse poem, there are many opportunities to share small observations about life, man, and the animal kingdom and you can fill your audience with your beautiful words.
Engender a prevailing tone
One of the hardest things to do when writing free verse poems is to create an actual structure. These poems need an organizing principle, or central mindset, that controls every concept, thought, movement, and word in the poem. It’s most often a dominant emotional theme, like longing, or a circumstance that makes the piece drive toward a poem’s purpose, like abandonment. Think about conjoining a variety of such themes to give your readers — and yourself — a theme to hold on to. Another way to organize a free verse poem is to employ figures of speech like metaphors, which give you an easy way to link two seemingly distanced ideas — something the best free verse poems do expertly.
This is when it’s most important to consider the title of your poem. It should directly reflect how the poem and its themes are presented. Many free verse poems have ambiguous titles, because the text alone — rather than a pattern of symbols, colors, or other identifying marks — should convey the deep psychological basis of the poem. When you choose your title, first find words that fit the poem’s underlying message, and then see how those words lend themselves to a concrete identity.
Choose word-flow that compliments your poem
One of the things that you have to concentrate on when you start on the path to writing a free verse poem is wordflow. All poems have words, and how you arrange those words is just as important as the words themselves are. In free verse poems, there is no song-like rhythmic flow. Instead you are relying on the construction of sentences and their meaning to carry the poem forward. You may also find that the word flow changes depending on the part of the poem. The beginning of the poem/a specific stanza may be more visceral and descriptive while the end will be more reflective. Therefore, when learning how to write a free verse poem, pay special attention to how word flow affects meaning flow.
Another thing to do when learning how to write a free verse poem is to think about genre. For example, it may be most appropriate to write the genre of your poem down before writing to get into the feeling of the poem before actually starting. Knowing the genre of your poem before you start will help you because the spontaneity of free verse poems rely on emotion rather than traditional structure. This emotion can then be used to write poems in most romantic or love themes. This spontaneity with the words can sometimes make it difficult to allow space for the words to convey an impression, when writing a free verse poem.
Involve emotional fluidity
There is no one, agreed upon definition for what constitutes free verse. Instead, its principles and style are centered on the inclusivity of the English language. Its primary objective is to present words as they come to the poet, rather than to form them in accordance with rigid poetic standards. Since one of the primary goals of free verse is to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas with an unaffected, fluid voice, poets who write in free verse incorporate vocabulary of their own choosing. Since free verse does not adhere to poetic standards, you should write with an ear for quality of imagery and an eye for natural cadence. Except for a pattern of one syllable, no extemporaneous rule prohibits words like “because” or “with,” which use two syllables. Simply experiment with word choice for compositional advantage.
While free verse poetry frequently aims to replicate a stream of consciousness, the style is rarely pretentious or experimental. Indeed, free verse authors are crafty with their choice of word and phrase, and if you want to write a free verse poem yourself, you’ll have to be, too. Free verse is unbound by the conventions of grammar, so feel free to let your creativity do its thing. Although this may seem like a daunting prospect that will deprive you of the discipline of writing elegant verse lines, an excessive absence of discipline may distort the integrity of your full disclosure writing method. Wishy-washy and shapeless free verse will not only fail to relay your entire interpretation of a poem effectively to your readers and listeners, but it will also diminish the luster of genuine emotion.
Embody the emotion
Free verse poems are open to interpretation, much like prose poems, and as such, they have historically been mistreated by many academic critics. However, free verse has been appearing more frequently in print recently as creative writers have embraced its expressive potential. Learn how to write a free verse poem by embracing the poem’s natural rhythm. The shape and sound of the poem’s language should dictate your poem’s form and structure, as opposed to a formal scheme. Find your flow, then stick to it. Free verse poems generally favor single-sentences rather than multi-clausal dependent clauses, but this is merely owing to the natural rhythm of the language and should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule. Similarly, free verse poems do not follow traditional meter or rhyme schemes because those formal forms are too restrictive. Instead, they use natural rhythm to shape the flow of the verse. Most importantly, you must mimic the rhythm of your poem’s language in your use of line breaks and stanza structures. Punctuating your poem according to that rhythm, rather than to some formal scheme, will help your poem to feel natural and unforced, which is precisely why free verse is so poetic.
Read other free verse examples to get a handle on how this kind of poetry flows, and try your hand at it yourself. Free verse is unstructured and lacks a syllabic meter, so you’ll have to rely on other sources of inspiration to discover your unique voice. Introspection is one of the easiest ways to tap the natural rhythms of free verse poetry. It is important to note that a natural rhythm permeates language at the level of sentence and word sequence – which means much of your inspiration is not only in what you say but how you say it. Contemplate the way natural poetry emerges in speech, we take as few conscious actions as possible to form rhymes, repeating vowel sounds for emphasis. Repeat sentences with similar phrases to mimic, or vary the language to goad the poet to express himself or herself. Add parentheses and run-ons to create a manic intensity, or short choppy lines to imply aggression. Language has infinite ways of running and stumbling, so get yourself writing for the best guide on how to write a free verse poem.
Choose a special effect for your free verse poem
Unique effects arise from the use of unconventional structure in poetry. One way to create such an effect is to arrange the lines of the poem in a pattern that is distinct from conventional forms of structure. Another way is to use lower-case letters to indicate ordinary speech, all upper-case letters to indicate shouting or a loud sound, left-justified lines, lines that are separated by a space from the preceding line, lines that are separated from each other by two lines, and lines that are separated by two or more stanzas. You can also experiment with placements of punctuation inside or outside the line. Some free verse poems have additional features that create a further effect. For example, a word can be underlined and the poet can add a question mark. In another example, a symbol can follow the title of the poem in parentheses or brackets. Each of these effects can be combined with other effects to create several kinds of free verse poetry.
Another way to create an appropriate effect in free verse poems is to be creative with line breaks. While in traditional poetry it is thought that the lines have set lengths, in free verse the lines can represent any length. Depending on how the poet divides the lines, the poem may have short or long lines or lines with different lengths. Free verse poets can combine these effects or add other effects that are unique to free verse poetry.
Plan your poem with line-breaks
The line-break is the most important part of any free verse poem, and learning how to write a free verse poem means learning where to place that line-break. When writing a free verse poem, it’s a good idea to first scan the poem before you write it and find your right-most grammatical pauses. Those pauses will indicate where the line-break should be. Unfortunately, this first step is the stage at which many poets stumble. Knowing what to look for when scanning your poems for these right-most pauses is the only way to know where line-offs should be placed. Some line-breaks are sexier than others, but it’s usually better to err on the side of clean. Line-breaks that work best are often minimalist, as they exist to serve as little distractions. Considering common ways in which line-breaks end poems is a highly effective way to learn how to write a free verse poem that appeals to audiences.
At its most basic, the line-break is an open space — both the blank space of paper, and the visual space you create on the page. Using breaks to create visual art is a popular method of thematic pacing in modern and avant garde poetry, and there are plenty of poems out there that all teachers and critics love — it doesn’t take a lot to see why these falls are effective. But other poets prefer to let sequences and sets represent poems that they feel create rhythm and sound without the aid of the visual. When it comes to your free verse poem, you’re the best person to say whether images or sound will work better, and when you know what you want to represent, this will be easier to do.
Use spaces to reveal words, not to separate them
For many poets, the rules of a free verse poem are easier to define than to follow. With no formal line breaks, it can be a challenge to know exactly how long a line should be, or how many words should make up a line. Some poets divide each line in half while they’re writing in order to force structure. But one ratio that many poets work around is the Golden Line — that is, a line that has about as many words as syllables. As a general rule, use two spaces after punctuation to keep lines the same length. That will keep your readers from getting confused when it comes to which words belong in which line. If you find that the words are running long and you need to cut – just use what times editors call two typing spaces. That’s the same space you’d use to make a simple correction, so your readers will never notice. Just keep doing this as needed so your poem’s lines are all even. Make sure you proofread carefully before you’re done so you don’t throw in too many extra spaces by accident.
Another important thing for free verse writers to consider is line and stanza structure. Without a traditional rhyme scheme, free verse poets typically stick to a short rhyme scheme within each stanza. This helps to provide some stanza structure while also leaving a bit of room for interpretation. Free verse writers are also often influenced by the length of the lines they’re using – so keep in mind that shorter, tighter lines may require more end-of-line punctuation, while longer, open-ended lines usually require less punctuation at the ends of lines. It’s important that you look over any closely-written free verse poem to be sure that you’re still using punctuation even if you are changing from run-on lines to short lines. And remember – no trailing off on your last lines. That’s just sloppy.
Use punctuation to give clues
Sometimes, writers who are new to free verse poetry try to eliminate punctuation altogether. This approach can be effective in small portions — such as in an excerpt, rather than in a full poem — but for most poets, it doesn’t produce satisfactory results. Punctuation marks don’t just demarcate speech, and they definitely don’t have to be boring. The most obvious way to use punctuation purposefully in a free verse poem is to serve as a way to signal non-speech. Long dashes, ellipses, short dashes, and brackets can all signal whispering, muttering, gnashing of teeth, and so on. Beyond indications of muttering, whispering, and other non-speech, punctuation can also be used to reform the way a poem is read. By placing punctuation in the center of a word — in a way that would be impossible when reading text — a poet can enforce a new understanding of the word. You might think that this surrealistic reformatting of a poem would harm the meaning. But free verse poems are more than the sum of their parts. In free verse poetry, a reader will absorb both the formal peculiarities and the interpretive peculiarities as inseparable parts of the poem, for the poem’s meaning.
Even if you want your poem to be interpreted as it’s written, you’ll still need to reformat some of the text of your poem. When a poet’s not working entirely in free verse, they rely on line breaks to divide a poem into lines. Poetry readers often use stanza breaks or line breaks to bring the pacing of a poem to consciousness. If a poem is written in free verse, readers still depend on punctuation for the same kinds of pacing cues. When reading a verse novel, the sudden change in pace midway through can be jarring. You want to use punctuation as a way to say to readers, “this is a line break. At least, this is a pause that’s significant.”
Aim for sense-scheme and end-stops
One of the challenges you have to overcome when writing free verse is the fact that meter and rhyme carried a lot of the weight in other forms of poetry. They allowed poets to signal to readers that certain parts of the poem were different from others. Both of these can be very effective ways for the writer to give the reader a sense of rhythm and pacing, something that becomes much more important in free verse.
Free verse poems are most successful when they have structure in some other way. This can be accomplished through the use of repetition and similar sounds throughout the poem, or by appealing to common formal patterns elsewhere in the work, such as the sonnet or the sestina. Through this sense-scheme, the poet helps the reader to keep track of the movement of the poem because of the visual similarities in the words used. In the same way, you can bring structure to your free verse poem by placing enjambments or end-stops at the end of lines. These will help the reader to anticipate breaks or shifts by organizing the rhythm into smaller, more manageable scopes.
Point of view is critical
Regardless of the subject matter, point of view is generally one of the first considerations of any free verse poem. It is important to choose the right point of view, because it can make or break your piece. The conundrum is that there are several common points of view that can be used, but it is important to pick the one that will be best suited for your piece of writing. In the case of free verse, some of the top choices include the first person, second person, and third person perspectives. By using your imagination, you can piece together a point of view tailor-made for your specific needs.
If you are writing about an experience that really happened to you, then the best choice is the first person point of view. In this case, you will use “I”, along with other pronouns to talk about your experience. This is a good method to use if you are writing a piece on a personal situation. The second person point of view is very tricky. It is traditionally used to address the audience, however it does not have to be. This is the most confusing point of view and it is harder to get the hang of.
Experiment with dialogue
Point of view is one of the most important aspects of writing any work of fiction, but when it comes to free verse, it can be a double-edged sword. When you tell a story in free verse, you have to switch back and forth between different viewpoints—otherwise your story would be in free monologue, and not free verse at all! Working with different perspectives allows you to maintain a consistent theme throughout, but it’s also risky. Once you’ve established the tone of your poem, the rhythm of the language, and the patterns of rhyme and verse, shaking up your style with a sudden shift in POV will jar the reader
Consider the importance of dialogue. By having characters speak, in free verse you naturally allow your story to branch out from just flowing from your narrator’s point of view. Dialogue allows your characters to develop and grow, which in turn allows your reader to empathize with your characters, and gives them a reason to care about what happens next. It allows them to live in your portrayal—instead of simply observing and listening to your narrator’s thoughts.
Use words that evoke strong images
If you want your free verse poem to do more than just express deep thoughts, then presenting those deep thoughts in an evocative and singular manner is important. Remember in your writing the sheer beauty and power of language. Vivid imagery can transform deep ideas into deep experiences, and it’s one of the best ways to bring an idea to life for others. Looking deeper into your idea means looking more deeply into the innate capacity of language to highlight deep and pleasurable experiences. Word choice is one of the most potent ways to do this, so as you look back on what you’ve written, watch out for the monotonous and bland images, and replace them with fresh and exciting images. Avoid trite expressions from pop culture, like “heart of hearts”. Substitute them with terms that you’ve invented, derived from your own experience. The best poems use new language to make the words stand out, like a new coat of paint highlights the beauty of a rough hewn door.
Once you’re making words stand out, it’s important to trust your language. When you have ideas you want to express, remember that the most beautiful and powerful language usually appears in poems. Being direct about the emotional center of the poem is a great way to go. Sometimes, striking ideas are framed by more workmanlike language — the basic palette and shapes are the same, but the work is transformed with a compelling center.
Mind the length
Though there is no limit to the length of a free verse poem, it is vital that the poet keep the poem focused and on topic. As the free verse poem is rarely telling a story, as are most traditional poems, every word counts. The poet should take care to eliminate any excess words or verses. A poet should also never scrimp on research to make a poem fit within a required number of octaves, or other metric requirements. Instead of offering readers a finished product, the free verse poet offers readers a poem under construction.
In free verse poetry, every word counts just as much as the next. It’s not uncommon for free verse poems to have less than 10 words in them — and even more common for them to have more, which can change the effect of the poem. In free verse poetry, you have complete freedom to use language as you wish. In order to make sure you’re using language that’s appropriate for the poem before you, consider the ways you can change the language to prioritize certain lines or words over others. You do this by varying things like line length, or with techniques like alliteration.
One device you can use to prioritize specific lines, and change the effect of your poem is to break up free verse poems into stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines, usually of the same length, which together form a unified segment that emphasizes the different words or ideas contained within it. This makes it easier to, for example, set up contrast by placing related words in adjacent lines, before building it up in the next stanza.
Pace your poem properly
Too often, writers who attempt to create free verse poems make the mistake of using run-on lines to overstate the importance of their thoughts. This mistake removes the natural pace of poetry from the poem, turning it into little more than a collection of thoughts in list form. To give your free-verse poem the correct rhythm, start by writing a short poem that follows the traditional rules of formal poetry. Measure each line for meter, avoid contractions in your sentences, and stick to quick thoughts. Revise your short poem to make sure that it reads fluidly and maintains a natural pace. Then, once your formal poetry has a natural rhythm to it, break the rules of form when writing your own free verse poem. Find the cadence of the poem and let the words flow with the rhythm created by your form.
f you create a free verse poem in a formal style, most modern audiences will recognize the subtlety of the poetry and read them as more “thoughtful” than “rushed.” Try starting the poem in a more traditional way, then mid-poem switch over to free verse. This switching and layering of formal and free verse poems creates a smooth and natural pace for the poem overall that makes the free verse poem feel more like a person speaking actively and conversationally. The same can be accomplished by starting a poem in free verse and shifting into formal poetry. Either way, the trick is to find and use the rhythm that best fits your style and the poem as a whole.
Remember how hard it was to learn all the rules of grammar in school? That’s because it’s way easier to break a grammar rule than to understand why it exists in the first place. The same goes for traditional poetic form, like the iambic tetrameter of traditional poetry. Many novices mistakenly think free verse poetry means using run-on sentences, while others fall into the trap of following every concrete poetic metaphor they can think of to the hilt. Ironically, these tactics only make free verse poetry less recognizable as such, instead of more evocative. As with anything else, it’s best to start with as simple a work as possible. Decide to write a sentence that has one concrete image and no concrete metaphors. Then, write another. And another. Eventually, or course, you’ll probably want to vary some plainspoken imagery with more impressive ones, but only after you get a handle on honest-to-goodness free verse.
It’s also unlikely that you’ll be able to write a polished free verse poem in a single sitting. Like writing fiction with a simple plot and lots of dialogue, a lot of free verse poetry will arise as a rejection of over-indulgent flights of fancy and — in the case of those anti-concrete images — overwriting. Instead, commit to listening for the little poem inside your big poem. Editing will be your biggest challenge in harnessing this discipline. Set a certain number of lines as your goal for a day or week, and declare that you’ll rework anything that needs it after that. Since the goal of free verse poetry lies in its lack of adherence to traditional poetry, you won’t be able to follow a formula for how much revision to do.
Be transparent in your communication with the reader
Free verse poems are not to be confused with prose poems, which are poems written in prose form. Free verse is a style of writing that represents an important break from traditional poetry. In novels or prose, the dialogue is spoken a certain way, but the dialogue in free verse isn’t necessarily written a certain way. If you’re a poet, you know how hard it is to have a poem without structure or rhythm. Have you ever seen a poem that has that, and just thought to yourself, “I’ve never seen a poem like that. It is different, yes, but unique!” That’s your way for a freeway. In a free verse poem, you can be as open as possible. Don’t hold back.
Openness and the freedom to write whatever you want is what is important here. In free verse poems, the purpose is to get the emotion and idea across. Usually, asked questions never begin with “what” or “how” but “why.” For example, if your poem is about a car accident, don’t write, “What are we going to tell the police at the scene?”. Write “why did this have to happen”. You never want to create the feeling that you want it to rhyme or for there to be a pattern. It should be simple and it should be powerful. It should change the perspective of someone. If you make your readers feel the way you want them to feel, and keep them interested, then you might have a free verse poem.
Make talking to your audience fun
If you’re trying to write a free verse poem, it’s actually surprising just how hard these tiny poems can be. Free verse poetry doesn’t necessarily follow standard grammatical rules, instead relying on natural speech patterns in order to flow. This style lets poets do great things, like pack an enormous amount of meaning into very few words, but it’s also a lot harder than traditional poetry phrasing.
Free verse poetry has three major appeals. For some writers, getting away from a strict rule-based verse structure means moments to make fun of those rules. Verse can be a wonderful playground to play with the way words sound, especially when you’re writing free and experimental forms. For other writers, free verse offers an emotionally raw way of talking about some difficult subject matters. Without the strict lineation of normal lines, it’s easier to gush out your feelings and your thoughts and your feelings about your thoughts. And finally, certain forms of free verse appeal to people who want to feel like they’re not writing poems at all. Once you get away from rigid stanza breaks, even your prose writing can say, “Hey, aren’t you a poet?” Try it—you might like the feeling of some added outside validation.
Speak from the heart
Loosen the reigns on your language and structure as you prose about the subjects that matter to you the most. Let the speed and style of your thought lines dictate the length and cadence in the lines of your poem. Remember, a free verse poem is not automatically a bad poem because it lacks these elements. Many poets have been brave enough to try to tamper with long-standing traditions, and incorporating fewer rules into your writing can result in a poem that’s more raw, earthy, and appealing to your audience.
The key to writing a good free verse poem requires you to learn how to harness the poetry in your soul. Each word — whether it’s placed on the page with strict, defined precision — or left loosely free to form itself into the way it wants to land — is an attempt to decipher the poem in your own head. Proper structure is necessary regardless of whether you’re writing a nursery rhyme or a free verse poem. Protecting the poem as you let it flow through you will be far easier if you go in with the understanding that your imagination begins where the process arrives.
So many people spend so many years pretentiously writing poetry, and then don’t do anything with it. Like any other writing genre, free verse requires commitment and inspiration, but it also requires research and revision. Don’t fiddle about for ten years reading Dr. Seuss, and then write your masterpiece that has no resemblance to poetry as a genre, or even as art. If you’re going to write poetry, or you’re already doing it, and you want to continue, know that about the only thing worse than bad poetry, is bad poetry with no form at all. Take inspiration from any source, but then edit, edit, edit. Finding the rhythm of the language shouldn’t be easy, and if it is, you haven’t done your job.
You have so much to learn about writing a free verse poem, and the only way you’ll learn it is if you’re willing to finish your writing projects. Once you write and revise a dozen or so drafts of your poem, you can sit back and go back over them one by one. Each time you revisit, you’ll find that you have fewer and fewer things to change, and the work becomes a little clearer, right until it’s finally done. If you are starting out as a beginner with poetry, then you have to build up a base of good habits. This may mean hiring a literary editor to go over your work and tell you what to cut. Often, editing it to one tenth of its length is the most effective course.
Getting used to the criticism of others is always a challenge for new writers, so before you start blasting away with free verse poems, do your best to get external feedback. You can either have a trusted friend look over your work or get a helpful professional involved. You want to try to get people whose tastes are different from your own to ensure you’re not just projecting what you want readers to feel. Getting feedback on your work is part of getting better, so don’t feel bad about asking for it. This kind of refinement will also help to keep your free verse poems from feeling too indulgent or loose.
If you’re worried about criticism coming off as abrasive or disrespectful, remember that feedback can be used to strengthen your own skills. Convincing people to critique your work can be tough! Instead of demanding it, cite your worry about impressing them as the cause of your request. The most helpful readers will tell you about what works and doesn’t work in your poems, so try to filter out any comments they may have about your motivation or goals in writing. Praise can also be an issue for newer writers, so just remember that every piece of constructive criticism is useful — a rose by any other name indeed.
Free verse deals with style in a way that’s directly related to the thought — and trip — behind the lines. That mental state will inevitably leak into your writing, but as long as it’s working for you, merging your thoughts and ideas with your unorthodox style shouldn’t be a problem. So whether you keep true forms or if you break the rules, free verse is a style that looks best when worn with pure, unabashed confidence. As you learn how to write a free verse poem, always remember that it’s all about you, and all about what you want to get out of the experience. Good luck!
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