How to Write a Winning Poem

The winning poem: the competition number one, the anthology best, the one that gets chosen from a submission. How do you do it? What’s the secret? How do you write that winning poem?

The secret is, there is no secret. Editors and competition judges are people too, they have tastes and opinions, their lives are shaped by experiences, they form connections to some work and not to others. It could just be a case of one day they sit down to the ‘to do’ pile and see your poem and something connects and boom, you win.

Having said that, there are ways and means by which you can ensure that your poem isn’t the one that immediately gets relegated to the ‘Nope’ pile. Some of them are obvious, some not so much. I’ve just done a spell helping to edit Paper Swans Press‘s new anthology ‘The Chronicles of Eve’. It was a huge task with near to 1000 individual pieces of poetry and flash fiction to whittle down to a long short list. Previous to this editing I’ve done a few other bits and pieces and judged the inaugural Prole Laureate competition (if you’ve not entered this year, you really should do, it’s open until 31st January). Both very enjoyable experiences, both incredibly helpful experiences as a writer and submitter of poetry.

I have devised a list of a few things you should and should not do if you want to get your poem into the right pile. I’m sure you’ll have read lists like this over and over, but hey, it never hurts to have another list. And I’m all fired up from editing so I might as well share.

  1. Spell check, spell check, spell check, proof read, proof read, proof read. I lost count of how many poems I saw during the editing process with very basic mistakes: words missing, words misspelt, words misused. And whilst, to a certain extent, I could be forgiving over some of them (who hasn’t lost a word a during brutal redrafting process?)  but when there/their/they’re were interchanged willy nilly or a glaring spelling mistake was present on the very first line of a poem, it put me off. It says no matter how good this poem is, someone has been lazy/slapdash, this poem is uncared for. That may be a bit harsh, mistakes happen, but I was always given the impression that when you send a poem off, it is like sending a CV off, it needs a cover letter, good presentation and it needs to be proof read to avoid poor first impressions.
  2. Editing/redrafting/polishing. Look at your work with a keen, self critical eye. Once you have finished writing your masterpiece, don’t just sling it in an email and ship it out. Stop. Put it in a drawer, close the file on your computer, leave it for a day, two days, a week. Longer even! Then come back to it and ask yourself if everything in that poem needs to be there. Lots of times the first stanza can be edited off completely. When we sit down to write a poem we are automatically introducing it to the reader, often we come back to it and realise it doesn’t need an introduction. Look for words, small words that maybe could be replaced with a comma, a semi colon, a colon. A poem is a condensed spirit, don’t waste words where you don’t need them. Look at your line breaks, do they work? Line breaks are as important to a poem as the words themselves, a lot can be said with a line break, a lot can be said with the space around a line break. Think about layout, think about structure, is there a structured form that would enhance the poem? Would a repetitive poem work well for a poem about going round in circles, for example? Make the poem work. It is more than just words on a page.
  3. Be Original. Ha! Easier said than done when you don’t know what the competition are writing. What do I mean by original? I mean give me something arresting, give me imagery which sets my teeth on edge, give me a point of view that opens the poem up into a new dimension. If you’re writing to a theme, think outside the box. if the theme is, for example, fairy tales, don’t think ‘I’ll write about Red Riding hood’ think about red riding hood as a metaphor for the safety of children, for the safety of women, think about making red riding hood kick ass and reimagining the story, think about making red riding hood an office worker with a grudge, think about what blood tastes like, think about the way a wolf’s foot sinks into mud in the dark, give me something that is more than just a story left aligned and and saying the same things that the story has been saying for the last five hundred years.
  4. Use structured forms (where suitable) I saw one sonnet during the whole of those almost 1000 pieces of work. One piece of structured poetry. I think people are under the impression that structured forms are boring, stuffy, dry. The first thing I learned about writing poetry is that you need to know the rules before you can break them. Sonnets were my nemesis, anyone who remembers me from the online creative writing group, Great writing, will know the struggles I had working and learning to work in structured forms. And then one day I didn’t struggle with them any more. The trick is, content over form every single time. The form should enhance, not distract from the poem. I would have loved to have seen some more structured forms and I know that other competition judges have said the same. I would have loved to have seen a really, really good use of structure, something delicate and subtle, even some subtle end rhymes would have been nice. Apart from anything else, they stand out and they show diligence and if you get them right, wow, they do something extra to a poem that is just magical.
  5. Using Expletives. Yes, do use them. But not randomly and gratuitously for the shock effect. I’ve always wondered if a swear word would put a competition judge off, I’m not sure. If it works well in the poem, then probably not. But certainly most anthologies and magazines wouldn’t be put off. I wrote a poem called ‘Fuck You’ once, it was about running. I use expletives as much as anyone else, I know other poets who use the sacred canon: Fuck, Bugger, Bastard, Shit. And occasionally the C bomb.Carole Bromley is adept at merging natural language and expletives successfully into poetry.  Her poems work because they feel like you are being spoken to, Carol is brilliant at creating relaxed poems, but somehow they have a beautiful epiphany moment within them. Because of the nature of the theme for eve, we had an enormous amount of poems using the C word. Some of them used it really, really successfully; owning it, reclaiming it as a women, and that really came across. For some, though, it was just obviously there for shock value. I don’t shock easily, I’m not shocked by the C word. What I thought was, ugh, not another boring cunt.
  6. Sexually explicit scenes. See above. Sex is not a dirty word. I like poems about sex. Jo Bell does a good sex poem, in my honest. But the thing is about sex in poetry, it’s what’s not said that is effective. I do not want to know about ‘love juice’ in a beard, for example. That one is from a few years ago and caused quite a bit of friction and arguments on the previously mentioned creative writing website. It is icky. I mean, let’s not pretend that sex is anything other than what it is; physical, tangible, sweaty sex and gentle delicate love making will always have a place in poetry, but juice in beards, just nope. Make it gritty, make it sad and painful and real, but please, beards, juice, no.
  7. If a magazine/Competition/Anthology asks for a submission of up to six poems, don’t send an entire manuscript. Seriously, it’s rude. There’s a time and a place and it’s generally when people are asking for manuscripts. It may have been sent with the best of intentions, maybe you couldn’t choose so sent the lot, maybe you thought that the editor/judge would be so taken with 30 pages of your poetry that they’d just drop the pile of competition poems on the floor and disappear into your dreamscape with you. Perhaps that happens somewhere, dunno, but it’s much more likely the judge/editor will say FFS through gritted teeth and drop it into the nearest waste bin.
  8. Do not contact the editor, or judge if your work is declined or you don’t win. It is a sure fire way of never getting your poetry into that publication. Show dignity. Rejection is part of the process, it makes the acceptances so much sweeter. Don’t make yourself look like a total tool by emailing the editor to tell them that they don’t know what they are talking about and that you know so much more than them. If you truly believe that, why the hell did you submit to them in the first place? No one likes a sore loser. By all means ask for any feedback, so that you can see what might have worked better, if they’ve got the time most poets are very open to helping, but when you’ve spent hours and hours and hours that realistically you don’t have and can’t afford (shock horror, most editors don’t get paid much) the last thing they want is someone demanding that you look at their poem again, because their mum, partner, friend, dog, church group, etc think it’s great. Have you not seen the X factor auditions?
  9. Lack of punctuation as a style. Very much still an american style, but slowly being absorbed by some British poets, (Daniel Sluman is a master) the use of space, ampersands, slashes and gaps instead of traditional punctuation brings a completely new dynamic to a poem. Done well it is brilliant, often reflects a disjointed theme in the poem, often reflects the hazy, disjointed and confusing life of the narrator or poet. But done badly, because you’ve seen someone else do it and you think it is probably in vogue, it looks random, it disrupts rather than enhancing and it loses impact rather than generating it.
  10. Finally, don’t be afraid. After all that, you might never feel brave enough to enter a competition or submit a poem to an anthology or a magazine again. I do quite a bit of mentoring, and one of the things that comes up constantly is the fear of not being good enough to enter competitions or to submit. That fear never, ever goes away, it’s part of the thrill when you do get accepted. Remember that the worst that can happen is that they say no to your work. Or they offer some advice and would like to see it again when you have worked on it. It’s always your poem so you always have the choice to say no back and keep it as it is. But if you never submit, you will never have an acceptance. If you never enter a competition, you will never win. There is no such thing as a ‘competition worthy’ poem. The ones that have won for me have always been total surprises. Poems that say something, poems that have heart and blood and make a connection, poems that are alive and have a voice will always have a chance and that’s what we aim for as poets. Don’t let your own self doubt get between you and your goals. If you’re unsure if a poem is good, ask another writer to proof it, go to a writing group, there are loads about. If you’re feeling flush, pay an impoverished writer like myself to critique your work for you and help you to develop it. But do submit. Good luck!

9 thoughts on “How to Write a Winning Poem

  1. Pingback: How to Write a Winning Poem | writing in north norfolk

  2. Pingback: Advice by Wendy Catpratt: How to Write a Winning Poem – Assorted Literature Explorations

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