A hand holds book pages

How to become a better poet

By BBC Maestro

Do you feel that your poetry skills need honing? Whether you’ve been crafting verse for years or you’ve only just started playing with poetry, it’s always good to practise and reflect on your writing.

In this article, we take you through some techniques on how to write better poems, and share some tips about how to become a better poet.

How to get better at writing poetry

Poetry is a skill as well as a talent, which means that with practise and encouragement, we can all develop as poets.

We’ve combined expert advice from poet Carol Ann Duffy along with other tried-and-tested techniques to create this short guide to poetry writing. Here are some exercises you can try to help you become a more accomplished – and more fulfilled – poet.

1. Read poetry

To become a writer, you must first be a reader: this is given wisdom for any branch of writing as well as poetry, from stand-up comedy to journalism. When talking about her craft, Carol Ann Duffy frequently uses the phrase “read to write” – your creative life starts with finding out more about the subject, and which forms of poetry and which types of poet appeal to you the most.

Good poetry is about finding your own voice, so reading around the subject isn’t about imitation: it’s about discovering what speaks to you, and which works inspire you to develop as a poet yourself. Carol Ann Duffy highlights the importance of exploring widely:

You’ll notice that I’m continually suggesting that we read to write. Particularly if we are beginning our journeys as poets. That’s because every poet offers something different.

So read the Romantic Poets, the Liverpool Poets, today’s Instagram poets. Don’t just stick to what you know or feel comfortable with, but challenge yourself to become well-versed, literally, in poetry.

Note down anything you especially like (or not), with a few comments about why you feel this way.

2. Read about poetry

Continue your research into poetry by reading guides and criticism. If you simply type the name of a poet into a search engine, you’ll find a selection of articles about them, which will let you read more widely around their work. If you like to read work in a context, this approach will help you explore the background to a poet or their work.

Before writing your own poetry, it can be helpful to learn more about subjects like poetic form and refresh any earlier learnings. Do you remember how to use figurative language? Or recall exactly what a sestina is?

There are some excellent books on our poetry reading list, which you’ll find in our article, Five of the Best Books on Writing Poetry.

3. Keep a poetry journal

When you’re reading poems or researching about poetry, make notes of anything that stands out for you. Carol Ann Duffy advises taking a notebook everywhere with you, which ensures that you never miss a thought or a moment: “Don’t let things disappear”.

Invest in a nice notebook and make sure that you always pack a pen. This notepad or journal stays by your bed or on your coffee table. It’s in your laptop bag on the way to work or in your handbag when you’re down the pub. You’re now always ready to capture an idea – or a word.

Carol Ann Duffy advises us to “keep a kind of word hoard” in our notebooks. This wonderful phrase was used by the Anglo-Saxon poets to describe their own lexicon, and that’s what you can do here: create your own hoard of words that speak to you personally, and that you’d love to use when the right moment comes. If you like a word, write it down to make sure you’ve saved it for later.

4. Connect with fellow poets

For honest poetry advice, speak with your peers. Poetry doesn’t have to be about “wandering lonely”; and even though it seems like a solitary pursuit compared with other careers or interests, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of like-minded new poets out there who would really appreciate the chance to share their work in exchange for looking at yours. You could also connect with more experienced poets who’ll be able to give advice and feedback. Carol Ann Duffy finds this approach helpful.

“There will come a point when you have a gathering of poems – maybe a dozen or more – and a good thing to do then is to sit down and read them. Perhaps you might be part of a writer’s group or a reader, a friend, a fellow writer, who can give you feedback on your poems.”

5. Explore poetic forms

Learn from experimenting and try to write different forms of poetry. This is where your earlier reading and research comes into its own. “Reading and familiarity with poetry will give you an instinct of what shape your poem should take”, Carol Ann Duffy explains.

Take a theme that interests you (pick something simple, like your cat or dog) then try writing about it in a range of different styles. Compose a poem for your pet in free verse, then in rhyming couplets. Try a cat haiku or a dog limerick, or challenge yourself with a sonnet. This exercise flexes your poetic muscles, and who knows, you may find you actually prefer writing in a different form to your usual style.  

6. Just keep writing

Whatever else you do, the best way to improve as a poet is to keep writing. Even if it’s simply a few lines in your trusty notebook, try to compose some words every day.

If a runner takes a few days off, their legs feel heavy and uncomfortable the first time they put their running shoes on again. However, if they manage just a quick jog around the block or a brisk walk to the shops on their down days, they won’t feel half as stiff when they get back to proper training. Your writing skills are the same. Keep practising and don’t let the flow dry up; and even if what you write feels a long way from your personal best, it’s still way better than nothing.

7. Revisit and revise your work

Professional writers from all backgrounds will tell you how important editing is, and it’s the same for poets. Carol Ann Duffy emphasises the importance of refining your work. She explains how a poem combines original thought with meticulous finishing.

“You have to craft a poem. It might be wildly original in thought, terribly moving in autobiographical content, wildly, darkly funny. It will have those qualities because it’s coming from you – something lived – it’s coming out through your words on the page. But you have to do your very best for that poem. And that involves drafting, re-drafting, thinking again, drafting again.”

Even if you regard a poem as a “practice piece”, spend time revisiting it and making decisions about what the final version will look like. Carol Ann Duffy suggests doing several drafts of your poem.

From reading to refining, there’s a lot you can do to develop your skills as a poet.

Can you become a good poet?

With practise, you can definitely improve your poetry skills. Take a look at the BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by Carol Ann Duffy. She’ll take you, one lesson at a time, through the art of writing poetry and finding your voice as a poet. She also tells her own story, sharing with us her own experiences as a poet, as well as the other writers who inspired her.

Give the gift of knowledge

Surprise a special someone with a year's access to BBC Maestro or gift them a single course.

Thanks for signing up to receive your free lessons

Check your inbox - they’re on the way!

Oops! Something went wrong

Please try again later

Learn how to take inspiration from the world around you

with Carol Ann Duffy