Poetry. There aren’t many other words in writing that are quite as divisive as this one.
Those who love poetry tend to be completely enamored with it. Those who don’t exactly love it? Well, they may often not only dislike it, but may actually view it as annoying, over-the-top, or gratingly dramatic and flowery.
But if you’re a professional writer of any type (copywriter, journalist, tech blogger, novelist, essayist, non-fiction author, etc.), there’s a lot you can learn about writing from poetry, even if you’re one of its dissenters who find it all but useless.
Not only that, poetry comes in a wide variety of forms, styles, and delivery methods. If you didn’t fall in love with Whitman or Dickinson in high school, there may definitely be other poets who speak to you and move you.
Think about it: If the only films you’ve ever watched were Austen-era period pieces like Pride & Prejudice, you might think you hated movies until you sat down to watch The Avengers or a Tarantino film.
And if you don’t fall for any style of poetry? That’s totally okay. There’s still a wealth of writing tips, techniques, and ideas you can pull from poems, no matter how you feel about poetry itself—and we’re here to bring you four of the most useful ones for any professional writer.
1. Let Rhythm Carry Your Readers With You
Far too often, rhythm (the pattern developed from stressed and unstressed syllables) in prose can be completely overlooked—especially in copy or other nonfiction writing. It’s easy to focus on what you are saying instead of how you are saying it, and to focus on what people understand versus how the pacing of the words makes them feel.
But considering how difficult it can be to get or hold a reader’s attention—especially in something like marketing copy—it’s vital to use every tool in your arsenal to grab their attention and keep them engaged. Rhythm can be an excellent way to do that.
Poetry is all about rhythm. Its pacing is as important as word choice, and can help make the piece feel musical, spoken, and alive.
For instance, consider the rhythm in Maya Angelou’s poem, “Harlem Hopscotch”:
“One foot down, then hop! It’s hot.
Good things for the ones that’s got.
Another jump, now to the left.
Everybody for hisself.
In the air, now both feet down.
Since you black, don’t stick around.
Food is gone, the rent is due,
Curse and cry and then jump two.
All the people out of work,
Hold for three, then twist and jerk.
Cross the line, they count you out.
That’s what hopping’s all about.
Both feet flat, the game is done.
They think I lost. I think I won.”
The bold, energetic rhythm of this piece makes it feel like a schoolyard chant, like you’re getting caught up in a fun, feverish, frenzied game while you’re reading it. This helps make the theme stronger, and makes you feel what the characters in the poem are feeling.
It’s easy to get so swept up in the pacing of the piece that you can be stunned by the ending when it comes, making it even more impactful. When you use rhythm effectively, your writing can become as impactful, and the rhythm of your piece can keep the reader engaged long enough for the impact to hit them:
“Only want the best? Who doesn’t? Come find it at Kim’s Antiques.” The punchy rhythm of the first two lines has an energy that can carry the reader along and keep them alert until they come to the name of the shop (which is when you really want them to pay attention).
But consider how much more sluggish it is with a less bouncy rhythm: “Do you like the best things? Who does not like those? We have the best things at Kim’s Antiques.” The stilted rhythm feels forced, unconfident, and boring, and it’s very likely a reader won’t even make it to the last line.
In addition, thoughtfully crafted rhythm can give your writing a bright, vibrant energy that makes a reader feel more as if they’re being spoken to (which makes your copy feel much more personal and sincere). Spoken English has a natural rhythm that not only helps us comprehend what is being said, but it also expresses the mood and energy of the speaker. (For instance, a stressed syllable is almost always spoken slower in English than an unstressed syllable, so the “important” parts of the sentence are emphasized.)
But sometimes, when we write, we can lose our sense of natural rhythm and end up writing flat, monotone sentences that either read awkwardly or have no life to them at all, which can bore or even confuse the reader. For instance, “Marty is coming to the party,” feels much more clear and natural than “To the party, Marty is coming.”
While this can be a tricky element to master, reading poetry is a great aid in gaining control of your writing’s rhythm. You may find it helpful to read poems that reflect the mood, theme, or energy you want to express in whatever you are writing before you begin writing. Rhythm is infectious, and once it’s rattling around in your brain, it can be easier to let that rhythm come through on the page as well.
2. Vary Your Sentence Lengths to Keep Readers Interested
You know those people who drone on and on and on when they speak, making you zone out long before they ever get to their point? (As if you’d even notice when they got to their point, honestly.) Very often, what makes this speaker so dull is that they’re sticking with the same length or structure of their sentences, over and over again; even if each sentence is short, punchy, and clear, they can all start to wash together.
Unfortunately, this a very common problem in writing as well, especially in nonfiction writing. Too often, writers become focused with listing a stream of facts. While they take care to get all their information right, they don’t worry about whether or not every sentence is starting to mimic each other.
It can also happen in fictional prose writing. An author may be eager to get through a scene, or may just want to express what is happening in the story as they see it in their mind. They get so focused on getting the information on the page that they don’t think about whether or not it’s able to be easily absorbed.
Switching up your sentence length is a fantastic technique to keep your reader alert and checked-in to what you are saying. When our brains think they know what is coming and when, we can get complacent and mentally tune out.
Not only that, but you can use the different ways sentence lengths can make a reader feel to great effect, and exercise a bit more control over your reader’s experience. Consider Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B”:
“The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.”
Hughes has incredible control over his sentence length, which equates to incredible control over how the reader is feeling and how engaged their attention is. Some phrases are short, sweet, and direct, such as, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” Whereas the line describing his walk home is longer and meandering, allowing you to feel like you are walking with him.
Another interesting way Hughes uses sentence length is often having short, concise sentences express “big” concepts or hard questions: “Me—who?” “That’s American.” When thoughts are presented so concisely, in the midst of long and complex sentences, it gives them a weight, a boldness, and an importance that makes you pay attention.
While it can be easy to fall into a writing pattern made up of similar sentence lengths, be mindful of how the reader’s attention and mood are impacted by the variety of your sentence lengths (or lack thereof).
If this is a bit hard to notice when you reread your writing, try speaking your lines out loud, or even recording yourself reading your piece; actually hearing your lines can make it much more obvious when they’re blending together—and losing your audience’s attention.
3. Take Advantage of Clichés
We have it beaten over our heads as writers over and over again to stay away from clichés. They’re seen as amateurish, lazy, boring, and entirely unoriginal.
But that happens only if you use clichés in a cliché way.
Clichés are iconic. They mean something to people, and they’re often something that’s recognized somewhat universally. We all know what someone means when they say “it’s raining cats and dogs,” or “they wear their heart on their sleeve,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
In fact, we’re so familiar with these phrases, their meanings, and their usual context that, similar to when we read the same sentence length over and over and over, our brain thinks it knows exactly what is coming and checks out.
But if you can harness that exception and then subvert it, you may end up making a deeply powerful statement that can hit your reader in a way they never saw coming. Many poets take advantage of this, referencing clichéd phrases, imagery, and situations, and subverting the audience’s expectations.
For a good example of this, check out the way Robert Frost uses the cliché “good fences make good neighbors” in this excerpt from his poem “Mending Wall”:
“… He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”
Frost calls out the thoughtless usage of clichés directly (“He will not go behind his father’s saying”), and then, to contrast, thoughtfully uses the cliché “good fences make good neighbors” to examine the isolation, sadness, and loneliness that can come from clutching onto traditions blindly.
Most readers are familiar with this phrase, and may have used it mindlessly themselves. But the context of the poem makes the situation immediately personal, real, and relatable, and sparks intimate questions within the reader: Who have we fenced ourselves from without asking why? Are we isolating ourselves? What other traditions do we hold onto blindly, and what is their continued practice keeping us from connecting with?
None of those questions would have been prompted so readily and willingly if Frost hadn’t used a cliché in his writing—but in a non-cliché way.
This is a technique that can be used in any other form of writing as well. It can be particularly useful in marketing copy, where you have a very limited amount of time to connect with a reader and make them feel something. Twisting a cliché in an unexpected way can immediately make them “wake up,” think, and engage with your writing.
For instance, a reader has likely heard the clichéd phrase “unique in every way” so many times that they’ve mentally completed the sentence before they’ve finished reading it. SunChips takes advantage of this with their slogan, “Unique in Every Wave.”
Since the last word is unexpected, it perks the reader up, and may even make them reread the sentence to make sense of it; it feels like something is “wrong” when it doesn’t follow the expected pattern, so the reader is compelled to double-check what was wrong. They’ll likely pay more attention as they reread it, which lets the point being made sink in more easily.
Clichés on their own can weaken your writing, but when used creatively, they can do exactly the opposite.
4. Bring Your Ideas to Life With Specific Imagery
There are some ideas that are incredibly difficult to express through writing or through language itself. How often do you find yourself staring at a blank screen, cursor blinking impatiently, completely unsure of how to express deep feelings of love or rage or loneliness or happiness?
It can feel impossible to let someone else into our own heads and hearts, to have them feel things as we do. So much of what we experience is happening within our own mind, colored by our perspective, and it can be profoundly complex to get someone else to see things the way we do.
This is true for professional writers of everything from fictional prose to tech reviews.
If you’re writing a novel about a teenage girl’s despair over moving away from her childhood home, you can’t just write, “Jessica was heartbroken over leaving her childhood home; it meant so much to her,” and expect that to be enough to make your reader truly empathize. Likewise, you can’t just say, “This new laptop is fast and great,” and expect a reader to be desperate to go out and buy it.
An extreme example of an experience that is notoriously difficult to communicate effectively is mental illness. By definition, much of it happens solely inside your own head and is often nearly unrelatable to those who don’t experience the same symptoms as you (and sometimes even then, it can be a very personal illness).
Mental illness is a frequent topic in poetry, partly because poetry often utilizes a technique that can make explaining the unexplainable easier: imagery.
Consider slam poet Sabrina Benaim’s “The Slow Now,” exploring her depression by detailing her actions one morning:
Benaim uses imagery brilliantly in subtle but precise ways that help make the whole situation much more real, active, and alive. Part of why her imagery is so effective is because she intentionally makes you visualize things that are familiar to nearly everyone: cotton swabs, shower curtains, dresses, etc. But then she goes a step further by making these familiar objects intensely specific: the cotton swabs in the blue box, the blue seashell on the shower curtain, the black and white dress with flowers.
Not only can we easily see these objects, we can easily see her specific world, which makes it all more real, more urgent, and throws us into her headspace and, by extension, her experience.
This kind of relatable but specific imagery can be used in non-poetic writing just as effectively. Instead of writing that Jessica was heartbroken, you could use imagery to make the home, and Jessica’s feelings, seem more real:
“Jessica could barely look at her house around her, could barely look at the front step with the oil stain that was shaped like a heart, at the kitchen table that was scuffed and scraped from years of Sunday morning breakfasts with her siblings, at the window in the narrow hallway with a view of the oak tree with the twisted trunk, at her name she had signed on her bedroom wall when she first learned to write. The writing had almost entirely faded; she could barely see it anymore.”
Being able to “see” Jessica’s house—and by extension, her memories—makes her pain obvious without us having to be told she is feeling it.
Instead of writing, “This new laptop is fast and great,” allow some imagery into your writing and let it come alive: “The new laptop has a sleek, chrome finish that you can nearly see yourself in. Its screen is as wide, crisp, and color-rich as a movie screen. Software that took over 40 seconds to load on the previous model now starts up in three seconds. It’s only as thick as a magazine, which gives it a slender, clean look on your desk that even a minimalist would love.”
Once a reader can actually see the laptop in their mind, see how they would use it in their life, and visualize it in their own office, they’re much more likely to be excited to purchase it.
Poetry Can Be Powerful—No Matter What You Write
As a professional writer, you know how impactful the words can be. Even if you aren’t a fan of poetry, there’s no arguing that it’s a medium that revels in finding just how much words can do, how far we can push language, and how much we can make a reader feel.
No matter how far from your own writing medium or style you feel poetry is (even if you’re a poetry fan, if you’re writing copy for brochures, you may feel like what you’re doing couldn’t be further from writing a sonnet), there are still things you can learn from what poets create using only language.
When you borrow some of poetry’s most impactful tools, like rhythm, sentence length variation, unexpected cliché usage, and precise imagery, you can bring some of poetry’s emotion, life, and energy to your own writing, no matter what kind of writing that is.
Poet Rita Dove has said, “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Embrace what poetry can do for your own writing, and see just how powerful your words can become.