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Judges' Tips

Poetry Competition

Judges' Tips

Suggestions for improving your poetry.

‘Writing became such a process of discovery that I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning: I wanted to know what I was going to say.’    Sharon O’Brien

To arrive at this level of excitement in your work is every poet’s aim. To achieve this, and hopefully to win the approval of judges, there are several things you can do.

The first is to set yourself up by reading the best that you can read, contemporary or past, and remember where it came from. It will become your benchmark.

Take risks with your writing, stay on the edge. Keep moving forward, never settling for the ordinary or predictable, static or stagnant.  Write about what you think, feel, reflect on. Start writing honestly and find things being drawn out of you that you didn’t even know were there.

Avoid the florid, overblown phrases that typify inexperience. Use words and phrases you can live in. Never force poetic devices like alliteration, but use them if they come naturally. Only that way will they flow. Imagery is crucial to poetry.
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ – Anton Chekhov.

Dealing effectively with line breaks takes a watchful eye and a listening ear. Otherwise your work becomes fractured prose, not poetry. The use of line breaks is a rhythmical device, like commas and full stops, to enhance the expression of your thoughts. If a line break fractures a thought, find a different way of saying it. You wouldn’t put a full stop in the middle of a sentence.

Employing sporadic or irregular breaks in the text, as opposed to set-length stanzas, gives added emphasis and strength to your thoughts.

When you think a poem is done, scan the metre by reading it aloud and listening to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables to see if the integrity of the rhythm is compromised anywhere. If it is, make any changes necessary to correct it. There are always different ways of saying something.

Choose one of those benchmark poems. Pull it apart, analyse it to see what makes it work, how the poet has handled all of the above.

Finally remember that no poem is ever really finished until it’s done. Be prepared to rewrite as many times as it takes to get it to a point where you know it is done. Conversely, know when to discard a poem if it isn’t working and move on.

NB – traditional verse.
Read the rules carefully, and follow them to the letter. Tinker with the rhyme, rhythm and metre until it sings. An ode isn’t a sonnet, isn’t a villanelle, isn’t a bush verse. All have different requirements so learn them before attempting one.

Remember, writing poetry is always a journey of self-discovery, so never give up.  


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