Many authors face a common issue when publishers express interest in their books, and that issue is word count. “It’s too long.” That’s a terrifying thing to hear when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a story, revised it umpteen times, and finally, painfully, thankfully finished it. You spent hours—days, weeks, even months—building your world and piecing it all together. Everything had a purpose. If you had an editor and beta readers, they helped you to trim out the excess and focus in on what matters, so how do you then chop out even more?
One of the first things authors tend to do is analyze the aspects of their story and try to figure out what subplots can go, what scenes can be condensed—basically, they try to figure out what content to cut. But that doesn’t always have to be your first move. There are a few other things you can start with that can easily bring down your word count without touching the worldbuilding you worked so hard on.
One sentence at a time
Let’s start with the best advice I can give you: aim to take out one word per sentence.
That’s it. One word from each sentence. Your book has thousands of sentences, so imagine what will happen when you take out one word from each: you’ll cut down on thousands of words without ever touching the core of your storytelling. What’s better, you’ll learn how to write more concisely with a tighter structure and more action. You’d be surprised just how slack we can become with our writing—we fill it up with filler words, adverbs, passive voice, wordy phrasing, and all kinds of extra stuff.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those “extras” and see if we can knock a few out, shall we?
Filler words can be taken out without affecting the meaning of the sentence. The most common filler word is “that” and you probably have quite a few to remove; I know I usually do. Take a look at this handy infographic and see if there are other common filler words you can cut from your work. Keep in mind that not every instance of these words will need to be removed. Use your best judgment to analyze whether or not the word is necessary. (After all, there’s a huge difference between she loved him and maybe she loved him.)
An adverb is a word that describes how an action was performed. It usually ends with -ly (though not always). I have to admit, I’m not one of those “never use adverbs” people. However, authors commonly misuse adverbs to “tell” what a character’s emotion is rather than show it.
He walked away angrily.
This is blatant telling, but it’s also an opportunity to trim down our word count. Consider the verb being used and the tone that the adverb is lending to it, and see if you can find a stronger verb that expresses that.
He stomped away.
And with that, we’ve easily cut a word from our word count.
In the simplest terms, this is when the action of a sentence is being done to the subject rather than the subject doing the action.
Passive: He was tormented by his demons.
In that line, “he” is the subject, but he’s not doing the tormenting. An active version will make sure the subject is doing the action.
Active: His demons tormented him.
In the revised line, “his demons” are the subject and they are doing the tormenting. Not only is the second sentence much more concise and flows better, but we cut out two words, as well.
Finding passive voice can be tricky, and some people will tell you that if you’ve used the word “was,” you’ve got passive voice. However, not every use of “was” is passive. The key is to pay attention to the word immediately after.
If “was” is followed by a verb that ends in -ed, it’s almost certainly passive.
She was consumed by her grief.
They were covered in blood.
The table was cluttered with papers.
All of these sentences can be revised to be more active by ensuring the subject does the action.
Her grief consumed her.
Blood covered them.
Papers cluttered the table.
We just removed two words per sentence with a quick switch-up!
If “was” is followed by a verb that ends in -ing, it’s not passive voice, it’s just wordy and often with a passive tone.
She was looking through the window.
However, at least half the time, it can still be revised to cut your word count by taking out the “was” and changing the verb to -ed.
She looked through the window.
Use your best judgment to determine if the tighter phrasing will fit without changing your meaning.
We all use wordy phrasing sometimes, using ten words when we can say it in five. As you read through your sentences, look out for anything that can be condensed, such as the previous example’s “was” combined with an -ing verb. A big one for me is sentences that start with “There was/were.” These can almost always be trimmed down.
There were six tables that had food on them.
That sentence can easily be reduced in a few ways.
Six tables had food on them.
Six tables held food.
Then there are words like began, started, and continued. Unless the fact that the action is just now starting makes a real difference, they can be safely removed. In the following sentence, we were able to remove two words without even breaking a sweat.
He began to clear off the table, carefully stacking dishes in his arms.
He cleared off the table, carefully stacking dishes in his arms.
As you go through dialogue, check for how your characters are speaking. There’s a good chance you can cut some words in there. Not every character speaks perfectly and formally, especially with their friends, so check for places where contractions would flow naturally. Check for how often your characters are saying each other’s names when they speak. That’s always an easy one to cut.
Hello, Tim! It is so great to see you.
John! Why, hello yourself! You look well.
Thank you, Tim.
Anytime at all, John.
See what I mean? The last two names can come out and “It is” can be contracted, leaving us with natural, flowing dialogue.
You can even get into more personalized things, like actions that characters repeat too often. For example, if a character smiles every other paragraph, some of those smiles can be removed.
It doesn’t take much to
start lowering lower your word count. 😉 Just take it one sentence at a time. With practice, your writing will improve and you’ll find that you have fewer words that need removing.
Having said all that, I’d like to conclude that I fully encourage you to take a brief break from your work before revising, use multiple beta readers, and get your books professionally edited. Having a fresh set of eyes on your story can do wonders not just for your word count but for the quality of your words as well.
I have three kids and two hands
Which means someone is always
Getting a lesson in patience
That someone is usually me
Yet still I curse too often
Dismiss too easily
Yell too loudly
Praise too softly
I have three kids and two arms
Which means someone is always
Asking for a hug
That someone is usually me
Yet still I hear more than listen
Tell more than explain
Show less than I should
Practice less than I preach
I have three kids and one heart
But it’s bigger on the inside
Someone is always learning
That love has no limits
That someone is usually me
And, yeah, I set my kids down in front of the TV
When I want to pee alone
Send them outside
So they don’t destroy the house
Make cereal for dinner
When I’m too exhausted to cook
Turn cleaning into a game
So they’ll actually get it done
But I make rainbow waffles
With whipped cream clouds
I read stacks of books at bedtime
And play make-believe all afternoon
I decorate birthday cakes
Until three a.m.
And laugh at jokes
That make no sense
I have three kids and one life
So I try to live it the best I can
It’s not always perfect
It’s not always proper
And someone is always
Getting a lesson in learning
That someone is usually me.
This article first appeared as a guest post I wrote over on CariJehlik.com. Be sure to check out the post on her site, too, where I’ve left a bonus tip at the end! Then just have fun going through all the great posts she has to offer!
A short story is, by definition, short. It is not a mini-novel and won’t have a lot of the intricacies that a novel has. You want to bring your reader into a single moment and spark something within them—be it happiness, comfort, fear, unease, pity, sympathy, deep thought, etc. This can be difficult with fantasy because it generally involves a level of worldbuilding that isn’t suited to a smaller word count. But difficult is not the same as impossible. Although many of these apply to all short stories, these are my favorite tips for writing a fantasy short story.
Less is more.
I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before, and it fits short stories in every way. The less you try to shove into your story, the more powerful it will be. Think of a single theme, moment, emotion, or question you want your short story to focus on. With every sentence you write, make sure it lends to that point. Stay on topic. When a reader finishes your story, what is the one thing you hope they think about or feel? Aim for that.
For example, let’s say we’re writing a story about an elf who learns that not all dwarves are selfish and greedy. We might want our readers to come away from this knowing that stereotypes aren’t definitive. As we write, we want to keep stereotypes in mind and consider how people react to them and ways that we break them, too.
It’s about who, not what.
Plots get messy. They get tangled. They drag in everything around them, which makes readers wonder how the rest of the world was affected. That’s great in a novel, but in a short story, you don’t want the reader wondering (or wandering) about your world too much. We can have a plot, of course, but we don’t want it to be the main focus. We want it running in the background like thematic music in a movie. (It should go without saying, but if we don’t want our main plot to take the lead, we definitely don’t want subplots, either.) Instead, keep the focus on one main character and make us feel something for them; emotional connections are what make your story memorable. Internal development is a great way to do that, so find a character and ask yourself how you can use them to express your chosen theme.
For our elf, we might want someone who doesn’t fit into typical elven stereotypes. If he knows he’s different, he will be better equipped to understand the dwarf, and that understanding will prompt our readers to wonder what stereotypes they themselves don’t fit into.
Focus your view.
Writing a short story is like making your readers look through a telescope: they can only see what you show them, but they get a close-up view of it in better detail. Focus on that view. The more scenes and settings you show your reader, the wider their viewpoint and the bigger your world gets. If your world gets too big, they will start to wonder about things outside the scope of your story. They will want more, and that defeats the purpose of your story being short. To that end, try to avoid heavy backstory and long flashbacks. Are your character’s current actions heavily affected by their past? Work it into the story as it applies to that moment, but stay focused on the scene.
Some short stories take a single character through a series of events in their life. If you choose to write one of these stories, be sure to maintain your chosen theme. Don’t show anything that doesn’t apply, and make sure each event had a real effect on shaping your character in the present time.
Now, that being said, there is a sort of fantasy-to-scenes ratio that comes into play here.
The more fantastical your story is, the fewer scenes you want to show, because with too many scenes, you’ll end up introducing way more than you can handle in a short story. The more realistic your story is, the more scenes you have available, because most of what you’ll show is already familiar in our real-world setting and requires little to no explanation. There’s not really a limit to how many scenes or fantasy elements you can have, but there is a balance between the two. In this handy (and simple) graph, the shaded section shows you where the good ratios are. The higher you are on the “fantasy elements” spectrum, the lower you should be on the “potential scenes” spectrum. Use your best judgment here to determine how many scenes you can safely show. If you aren’t sure, go with fewer. Of course, you can never go wrong with a single scene regardless.
In our example story, we’ll focus on just one scene between our characters, without letting the readers’ view slip. Maybe the elf, after a nasty encounter with the local wildlife, finds himself stumbling into a dwarf’s camp and the dwarf takes care of him, even offering up the last of his food. Our elf is shocked at how kind this dwarf is compared to the last dwarf he met, but we won’t go into a big flashback; if anything, we’ll just show it in a few lines, nothing more. Let’s stick to our campsite. We should have enough going on there, anyway.
If it doesn’t matter, don’t mention it.
I feel like this is just good advice all around, but in a short story, it’s imperative. It’s always helpful to know your character’s backstory and what else exists in your world—just for your own knowledge. But if it doesn’t affect the character in the moment, don’t mention it. Keep your world contained within your scene. It might feel as if you’re limiting yourself or making your world “boring” but I promise you, again, that in a short story, less is more.
Maybe our elves like to travel by dragon. That sounds cool, but it also makes me want to know more about the elves. Our elf didn’t set out on dragonback, so it’s best to leave the dragons out of it. We’ll keep that little tidbit to ourselves, and maybe we can find a use for it in another story.
Tropes have their places.
Accentuate anything that will be familiar to the readers. For fantasy, this can mean tweaking tropes or common fantasy elements. Not that you have to make your story one giant trope after another, but tropes exist for a reason: they’re familiar and recyclable. Fantasy has so much that usually needs to be explained, but if you drop major key words and hint at familiar tropes and elements, it cuts down on the explanation you’ll need to use.
For our example story, we can easily capitalize on the notion that elves are agile and great with a bow, and that dwarves are stocky and great with a hammer or axe. Just by equipping these few elements, our readers will not wonder too much about our races in general because they will think they already know everything about them based on their tropes/cliches. This gets the background and world development out of the way subtly so we can focus on our characters’ interactions.
Watch those fantasy terms!
Developing a world can sometimes mean building countries, races, creatures, magic systems, and even languages…but in a short story, the more fantasy terms you use and the more you name, the more you’ll have to explain and the deeper you’ll end up getting. Keep your “original” words at a minimum. Don’t use a thousand terms that all need explanations, otherwise you’re either going to have a novel or a story that begs to be one.
Our characters might let slip the names of their home cities, but in context, those are simple to understand and accept. We just won’t mention that they ride unth’lak over the Boontu Valley and eat chabrothka soup during the Galli holidays. Explaining all that, even briefly, steals the focus away from our campsite and out into the world, which is just too much for our short story.
There are plenty of other helpful tips out there, of course, but these should cover the basics. You can even write that elf and dwarf story if you’d like some practice! Just keep these tips in mind and you should be well on your way to writing a great short story (fantasy or not)! With a strong focus on a central theme and keeping things simple and contained, you can create a short story that not only pulls readers in but makes them feel exactly the way you want them to. And, more importantly, it doesn’t leave them begging for more of your story—just more of your writing. 😉
For more worldbuilding tips and help with idea generation, join my Facebook group Worldbuilder’s Muse.
Don’t forget, this article first appeared as a guest post over at CariJehlik.com. If you hop over to her site, I left you a bonus tip at the end! 😉 Enjoy and happy writing!
A poem I wrote to a friend, who will probably never read it. I know things will get better if you just have hope and keep moving forward. We’re here for you.
Don’t tell me that you’re feeling fine
Because I won’t pretend it’s true
Your eyes are red, your smile false
And your laughs are all too few
Behind the cheap facade of “fine”
Lies the friend I used to know
The pressure must be building
As the cracks begin to show
I know it’s just a habit
Filler words to string along
But please don’t say you’re sorry
You’ve done nothing wrong
Speaking of your habits
And those you ought to break
Take care of yourself for once
And everyone else, forsake
You’ve been selfless for so long
And that hasn’t been returned
It’s time you know the feeling
Of receiving what you’ve earned
I know I haven’t known you long
But believe me when I say
You can count on me to be there
Any time, any place, any day
I hate to see you broken down
Consumed by all that’s dark
I wish I could fix everything
That’s stripped your smile stark
You may be feeling lost and down
But this is not the end
Just breathe, and please remember
It will all get better soon, my friend.
As an avid worldbuilder, I find that my writing tends to gravitate toward speculative fiction. This is the answer I’ve been giving lately when asked what I write, and it almost always results in the same question: “Isn’t all fiction speculative?” I thought that at first, too. But the answer, surprisingly, is no.
Speculative fiction (sometimes called spec-fic) is an umbrella term for a wide variety of fiction genres. Fiction itself, of course, just means “made up.” But something can be made up and still have the possibility of happening, like a billionaire falling in love with his secretary, or two brothers fighting for the same woman’s attention. To make it speculative, you have to ask the question “what if…?” outside the realm of what is possible in our real world. For example, if that billionaire were to put on a metal suit and face off with an alien army, or if those two brothers were vampires. Aliens and vampires don’t actually exist, they change the “rules” of the real world, so all we can do is speculate how they would affect it. Hence the term “speculative” fiction.
Worldbuilding is a staple of this blanket genre, because when you bring something impossible into the mix, you have to explain to your readers just how it would work. Whether your story is set on another planet altogether or simply adds a single element to our own, there is some worldbuilding involved. The less you change our known world with your “what if,” the less you’ll have to build.
Although fantasy is the main genre that comes to mind when someone hears the term “worldbuilding,” speculative fiction touches upon a lot of major genres. The most popular include fantasy, science fiction, superhero, horror, and alternate history. Let’s take a closer look to help you understand how it all fits together.
Fantasy is borne of imagination. This vast genre revolves around fictional elements (whether large-scale like secondary worlds or small like a single creature) that question the rules of our known world. Mythological creatures, created species, aliens, gods, magic—none of these exist in the real world, therefore any stories that ask “what if these were real?” are speculative. And in the fantasy genre, that’s all of them. Some examples include Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wheel of Time.
This genre tackles the potential consequences of advanced scientific and technological innovation, solidly based on our past and present knowledge, and is usually set sometime in the future. The speculation comes into play when you add in unknown elements like time travel, aliens, and space travel to worlds we have yet to discover. Some examples of speculative sci-fi include Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Martian, The War of the Worlds, and Ender’s Game.
A self-explanatory genre, this focuses on people who have extraordinary or super-human powers and fight evil (thus making them heroes). Having powers is purely speculative (as far as we know). It most often takes place in our own real world, tossing in a super-powered hero and their dark nemesis. There are superheroes who don’t have actual powers, like Batman or Iron Man, but they share every other element with those who do, so they still count. Examples abound in the comic world, though most notable are the superheroes (and supervillains) created by Marvel and DC, such as The Flash, Wonder Woman, Vandal Savage, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Doctor Doom.
This genre aims to frighten. A lot of horror and suspense is not speculative and could actually happen. Serial killers, wild animal attacks, people with exaggerated mental illness—that sort of thing. When you add in monsters, ghosts, and other paranormal or supernatural beings and events, it becomes speculative. Examples include The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, It, Coraline, and The Haunting of Hill House.
This fascinating genre explores what the world would be like if history had taken a different turn. If Hitler would have succeeded. If the South had won the civil war. If the Black Death had killed far more than it did. Anything from small events to global ones count here, and since history quite clearly went the way it did and can’t be changed (that we know of), alternate outcomes are purely speculative. Examples include The Man in the High Castle, 11/22/1963, Making History, Bring the Jubilee, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Fatherland.
A lot of these genres can be combined to form wonderful speculative mash-ups (and also some awkward ones, but I won’t judge). If you look through these genres and analyze what can make them speculative, you’ll begin to see what sort of worldbuilding had to be done to make readers believe such things might actually exist. Essentially, though, they can’t exist in our world, not with our current knowledge of how things work.
Which brings me to my final point: the unavoidable change in what we think we know. Speculative fiction is only speculative as long as it breaks our “rules.” But we’re always learning things and growing as an intelligent species. Aliens might be speculative fiction right now, but what happens when we discover another world with a sentient life form? It becomes real. Once upon a time, people believed the earth was flat. Back then, stories about “going around the world” were speculative. Until we learned it was round. So, times change, knowledge deepens, and what is speculative now might not always be. But until such time as we prove these fantastical elements are true, we have to figure out how they might exist. We have to ask “what if…?” and do a little bit of worldbuilding to back up our theory.
As I said, it’s a large umbrella term and most stories can be further classified into a more specific genre, but hopefully now when someone tells you they write speculative fiction, you’ll know what they mean.
I wrote this in February and wasn’t sure what to do with it, because it’s much more…straightforward…than I usually like to be. But sometimes, we just have to deal with people in our lives (even for a short time) who make us want to yell and scream and throw things. This is for those people.
Get off your high horse
You’re breaking the poor creature’s back
You don’t know everything
You aren’t a god among men
Mockery sprays from my tongue
As I waggle it at your back
I stop myself
I don’t want my face to stick this way
Full of self-righteousness
You’re doing it again
You make a good point
But you could be nicer about it
I can be a dick, too
Watch me get on my high pony
Tall enough to keep my pride
Without looking down on others
Short enough that those around me
Aren’t staring at an ass
I’m not talking about your horse
Help me into the saddle
You’re an expert at this too, aren’t you?
What else do you know
Oh Wise and Learned One?
All the secrets of life, I presume
How we can have everything we want
If we listen to you
Because you have it all
Yes, you do
All in your head
I don’t have everything
But I have enough to stand on
A small pedestal that doesn’t buck
All I want now
Is to watch you fall off
And break your arrogance at my feet
The funny thing is
What I used to want
Was a taller horse
There are many ways to add depth and interest to a story. One of my favorites is using terms and phrases from a foreign language; they can lend your story a more immersive experience into a culture or region. This applies both to cultures based in the real world and ones you’ve created.
Whether you’re using an existing language (like Spanish or German) or one you’ve constructed yourself, the vast majority of your readership isn’t going to understand right away. They don’t all speak Russian, let alone Na’vi or Dothraki. Thankfully, there are many clever ways to show the meanings behind these terms while keeping things flowing naturally.
Read through the scene you want to insert your foreign language into, and be sure to take note of your narrative voice and what information your character has access to. That information will help you decide which method is best for each situation.
1. The most common method is to allude to the meaning of the foreign terms through the surrounding dialogue. Usually, this is part of a back-and-forth exchange where one character’s foreign question or statement is responded to in English, using contextual clues that leave little ambiguity to their meaning.
“Ti amo, mio marito,” she whispered.
He held his wife close. “I love you, too, honey.”
2. Another popular method is to explain the meaning in the narrative. Just like with dialogue, you use contextual clues to show the reader what it means. This can either be given bluntly or subtly hinted at, as long as it gets the point across. However, with this method, the meaning is more or less paraphrased in lieu of an exact translation.
The sorcerer waved his hand before the wall, calling on the ancient spirits. “Venardi ama doya!“
3. A less desirable (but still viable) option is to have these terms listed in a glossary or dictionary in the back of the book. Not all fantasy books have a glossary—not all need them—and I don’t recommend adding one just for a handful of phrases, unless you think there are enough other strange fantasy terms in your book that warrant using one.
So lek þi’tla (so LEK thee-till-ah) — (Tl’ysian): “By the wind’s word.” Adds emphasis to a statement, implying “The wind said it, so it must be true.” Also used to show truth and honesty, much like “I swear it to be true.”
4. You could also—if it fits the story—have a character there to translate. This one is straightforward, but should be done properly to keep from feeling forced or like an info-dump. Try to keep things natural.
The prophet waved her arms wildly and shouted into the crowd. “Alydali bursa chrisael!”
A local woman must have caught the confusion on my face, because she leaned over and whispered, “She’s telling everyone that she won’t take no for an answer.”
5. When you have a heavy amount of a foreign language and no viable way to imply its meaning naturally, you could always leave out the foreign words and write it in English, explaining through the narrative that the character is speaking in another language altogether. After all, not every instance has to be written out exactly.
In his native tongue, the witch doctor chanted to his gods and prayed for clear skies. It was rough and guttural, a language that had been out of use for centuries beyond the edges of this village. I considered praying with him, but I wasn’t sure the old gods spoke English.
6. If the character has no idea what is being said or done, has no idea what the language is supposed to be saying, or has nothing to clue them into it, then you can use that to your advantage as well. Sometimes, these are the most fun.
Hattie listened to the sorceress’ words, trying to make out anything that seemed familiar.
“Sa hasa sha na pala. Joya na sa sha pala.” The sorceress rocked in her seat, eyes still shut tight, muttering more words that sounded like gibberish.
Whatever she was saying, hopefully it would help. For all Hattie knew, the woman could have been cursing her to hell.
7. Maybe, along those same lines, your character isn’t fluent in the language but does know a few words. That could also give you just enough of the language to clue in the reader without being a direct info-dump.
She tried to keep up with the fast pace of the ritual, but her limited knowledge of the Ashanti language left her more disconnected by the minute. She was able to catch a few words here and there—staff, sacrifice, mercy. It all sounded very mysterious.
8. Finally, there is the less used option, which I wouldn’t recommend personally. It’s mostly used in children’s stories or with just the right omniscient narrative voice—one where the narrator knows what it means and gives a translation immediately after the text.
“Bidamo jolantis!” the witch cried out. Her words roughly translated to “kill the beast!” and the entire mob surged in agreement.
In the end, as long as the reader can infer the meaning or you show the character’s thoughts on the strange language, it will seem natural to the story. If you’re still stuck on which method to use, try to put yourself in the character’s place. What would you do? Are there any methods you like that I didn’t list?
For more worldbuilding tips and ideas, join me on Facebook in Worldbuilder’s Muse.
Today I’d like to talk about the poetic structure involved in writing free verse. We’ll go over what free verse is, the problem with most free verse, and some things to consider when writing it.
I know what you’re thinking. “But it’s called free verse because it doesn’t have any rules or structure!”
That’s true. Free verse is known for its lack of hard-and-fast rules and its fluidity in structural form. It can take any shape, any size, any length; it can have meter or none; it can rhyme or not. You have complete creative license with any and all poetic devices available. But those freedoms are vastly misunderstood by the majority of “poets” who write it.
Poetry in general is an art form.
It is an expression of emotion, thought, and mindfulness. It should be well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. While many poets believe that this only applies to a poetic structure involving meter and rhyme in an exact form, it is a fact that even in free verse, good poetry is still well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.
I’m not an expert. I’ll state that now. But I have been involved in the world of poetry for the better half of my life, and there are certain things you learn when you put forth the effort to improve. As with any writing, no one starts out perfect, and we are never done learning.
The problem with a lot of free verse
Some of you are going to be offended by this. I’m sorry, I really am—but if this offends you, then you especially need to read it.
The problem with a lot of free verse is that it has absolutely no energy put into it at all. Many “poets” (and I use that term loosely) simply scribble down a chain of thoughts or string together words that they associate with an emotion or theme. They throw in dramatic line breaks at random and use one-word lines frequently. They use big, fancy words and try to sound deep and wise, though often times this comes across as pretentious and nonsensical. It doesn’t flow, and their lack of attention to detail is glaring. Yet still they wave it in front of their friends and shout, “Look, I’m a poet!”
Many of those flaws are actually based on preference and can be done well. It is possible to write a poem of one-word lines. Whether a poet uses fancy or plain language is up to them. The tone of a poem can be deep or nonsensical. However, what sets the good poetry apart is that it is well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. Getting tired of hearing those three things yet? Good. Remember them.
There are a number of things that you should consider when writing in free verse. None of these steps limit your poetry in any way, as they are not restrictions but are considerations and tools for improvement. You don’t have to use all of these. You can, but you don’t have to. Just like baking a cake, you don’t have to use every ingredient in the kitchen. But you should use more than one. One of the biggest flaws in free verse is that many “poets” only get through step 1 and stop. Don’t do that. That’s not free verse, it’s free writing.
- The first thing you write down should definitely be your thoughts, emotions, and the chain of mental images that come to you freely. Don’t worry about perfecting structure, line breaks, or wording here. Just let it flow. As with any writing, you will need to revise, review, and revise some more. You can’t edit a blank page.
- Go through what you wrote and consider the theme and tone you want your poem to convey. Remove anything that doesn’t apply. The initial writing should be free, but the final product should be focused. The more you stray from the topic, the less sense and power your poem will hold.
- Consider your line order. Does it flow smoothly from start to finish? Are there any parts that should be rearranged? Poems tell a story in some way, even if they are capturing a single moment in time. Make sure the progression of emotion makes sense to achieve your desired effect. The most powerful lines will be the first and last in the poem. Make them count.
- Look closer at your word choice. Your poem will have an overarching tone to it, and the words you use play a large part in portraying that, so choose them wisely. Whether you prefer big, fancy words, plain and simple ones, or a balance of both, make sure you’re being true to your intended tone.
- Read through each line carefully, and pay attention to where your lines start and end. The way you split your poem on its lines will determine where the emphasis lies and what parts readers pay the most attention to. In many cases, the last word on a line has the most emphasis, so keep that in mind. Consider words that have double meanings, spots that have a natural pause, and ways to pull the reader to the next line.
- Along the same vein, consider the length of your lines. Longer lines take more time to read, appear darker and packed together, and they allow for more complete thoughts. Therefore, they lend a more serious quality to your work. Shorter lines are surrounded by more white space on the page and are read quickly, giving them a lighter feel. Playing with this can make the reading feel smooth or jarring. Think about the ride you want to bring your readers on and the tone/theme you’re aiming for. These are all affected by line length.
- Read your poem out loud and listen to how it sounds. Even without rhyme or meter, your poem should flow naturally when spoken out loud. A lot of free verse is used in spoken-word poetry, so look up a few examples to see if this is something you’re interested in. (Button Poetry is a popular one.) Reading it out loud allows your ears to hear flaws your eyes will miss, and it can help you find tricky spots that need work.
Lead by example
As I said, I’m not an expert. I still have a lot to learn. But I do my best to put energy into each poem to make it the best it can be. So, now, I’m going to share with you a free verse poem I wrote earlier this year. I walked myself through all seven of these steps and revised it quite a few times to get this result. You may or may not like it—either way is fine—but hopefully you can see each of the steps involved and how they played a part in making this what it is.
Although you can’t see step 1 in there, this poem began twice as long. It had lines going in a few different directions, including where You were in relation to me and how it made me feel.
But when I went into step 2, I realized that the point of my poem was about being second best. So I took out all the excess and focused on the lines that put me in second place.
The lines weren’t in this order to begin with, either. The story this is telling goes through all the ways You don’t prioritize me in Your life, so for step 3, I wanted to end with emphasis on the fact that I have recognized how unimportant I am to You.
For step 4, I really tuned into my word choice and placement. I prefer smaller, more direct words in my poetry to show that even “complicated” emotions can be simplified with the truth. I used repetition to show that You claim to love a lot of things…except, apparently, me. In the first stanza, I only reference myself once while using You four times to emphasize how much it’s all about You. I make sure that each preposition I use expresses being covered by something or being equal to something else, but never higher. I also countered “lay” in the first stanza with “stand” in the second, showing that while you put me down, I can lift myself up.
Step 5 was tricky. I made sure to capitalize on the repeating phrase “you love” and to place each preposition on its own line. Combined, this expresses the sentiment that it doesn’t matter what “you love,” but that You love it more than me. Each of the second stanza’s five lines has a lot of emphasis that counters the entire first stanza. “I” is first and above the rest of the lines. The first two lines together show that I have feelings, too. I want to stand “above” for once. More so, I want to stand above “anything.” Even something small. It’s a powerful ending that conveys desperation and hopelessness, despite standing up for myself and admitting how You’ve made me feel.
I went out on my own for step 6. I wanted this to be a more serious poem, but I didn’t want long lines and lots of words. I wanted to keep things simple and truthful. For that reason, I decided to keep the entire poem short and to the point.
Step 7 is the real reason it is what it is. I read it out loud every time I made a change, until it had a nice sound to it and seemed to progress naturally. Hearing my words out loud helped me get a feel for what fit and what didn’t, as well as what felt forced.
What do you think?
I hope this has given you some insight into how you can make your free verse stand out. If you put some energy into it and contemplate how you’ve structured it, I know you’ll do great! When you’re reading it by other poets, try to pay attention to these steps and see if you can understand why the author made the choices they did and what emphasis and importance each part has (hopefully they also put some energy into it). Doing this will help you learn to analyze free verse a bit better, allowing you to offer more constructive critique on it, and it will show you what kind of free verse you enjoy most. Hopefully kinds that are well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.
Poetry is one of my favorite things to write. Not that I’ve got big dreams to be a poet or anything, but it’s a form of writing I’ve always admired. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of “modern poets” are just free writing and calling it a work of art. True poetry takes so much more than that (in my humble opinion) and takes hard work and multiple rewrites to tell a story, to capture a moment, to make a reader feel. I love when I read one that not only flows beautifully and uses simple, vivid imagery but also strikes a chord in my heart.
That said, you’re going to roll your eyes when you read this one, because it’s absolutely nothing like the poetry that I normally fall in love with. But I’m a huge fan of poems about impermanence, circumspection, and simple joy, and when you love something, you don’t question how you love it. You just do.
I shared this with my favorite poetry group recently, and I was prompted by a friend to share it on my blog as well. It was a great idea, because I am in love with this poem and I want you all to see it, too. More than that, I want you to understand the way I view it and how I connect with it, because then you can better understand me. This is a very old poem and one of my all-time favorites, by Kobayashi Issa. He was a Buddhist poet and considered one of Japan’s “Great Four” haiku masters.
I’m going to roll over,
so please move, cricket.
That’s it. Nine words. It’s not even a real poem, really—not in any traditional or modern sense. But I love it because these two lines speak more to me than a poem of fifty. It so fully captured what we should strive for as souls that I could reflect on it for hours.
And the reason this inspires me is because it teaches me that a poem doesn’t have to try super hard. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to use big words or be metaphoric or intentionally deep. It can be simple, short, and easy. A little bit goes a long way, and you can speak volumes with a simple sentence.
To me, this speaks of life and self-love. “I’m going to roll over.” This is what I’m going to do, because I want to and because I need to. I am confident in my choices and I will not change my ways for anyone else, because this is my life. I have to focus on myself first and foremost, because I only get the one life I’m living. I have to love myself and do what it takes to take care of myself.
However, he continues with “so please move.” Just because I’m confident in myself and my choices doesn’t mean I have to be selfish or inconsiderate. I’m telling those around me what I’m planning so they are informed, just as I would like them to do for me. I make my choices based on what I know. And I should use my manners, say my pleases and thank-yous, because even acting in my own interests, I can be kind and considerate. My path might head in a direction of my choosing, but I don’t have to be so unmoving that I don’t step to the side to avoid a tree root, or climb over a rock, or wait for a passing cricket.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this is all said to a “cricket.” My place in this world, as a human, is not always at the top, and we are not the only creatures in it. Being kind is not limited to just humanity. Even down to the basest life forms, I should strive to be aware of those around me. As denoted by the first line, I don’t have to cater to others to be happy, but I should take them into consideration. Even those that I might automatically write off as “less important” than me (in whatever the situation is, at least) I should step back and think about where they are and how my actions might affect them. I don’t have to change my decisions, but I should alter their execution to be mindful of others. If I want to eat a piece of cake, I should—but it doesn’t hurt to offer a slice to the other people in the room, either.
And that is the power of Issa and his poetry. As simple and almost laughable as it might be, I hope you understand now why it is one of my favorites and how poetry, in all its forms, can both surprise you and humble you. I hope, at the very least, it’s inspired you.