sheer poetry: 5 tips to bring ALL your writing alive
October 8, 2009
Today is National Poetry Day, and the poets of Britain are busy spreading the word around schools, community centres and reading venues. Poetry is largely about the joy of language: ways to make it hop and skip. But the poets also know all about how to make words work. Poems have to be convincing. A lot of the tools poets use, which are thousands of years old, are also used by political speech-writers, advertising companies and other highly influential types.
So I thought I’d celebrate National Poetry Day by sharing some of the best tools in a poet’s toolkit, to help you really get your messages across.
1. Keats said: “load every rift of your subject matter with ore.” He meant that what you write should carry as much meaning as it can. And he was saying it to no less than Shelley, so basically it has to be true. In other words: make all your words pull their weight! Don’t send an empty cart to the top. If a phrase, or sentence, or paragraph, isn’t full of content, cut it. Or fill it.
2. Poetry is all about images. Images are about making people see things – things like ore, and carts. Think about it: when people say, “Oh, I see,” they mean: “I understand.” Create a picture they can see in their heads: a smiling customer, a bulging case file. Namecheck colours. Tell them something they can imagine. If you can put your ideas across in a visual way, people will absorb the information more easily. Guaranteed. (This works for all the senses, by the way. “Sense” means understanding too.)
3. “Show, don’t tell.” This is one of the first things you hear in a creative writing workshop. It’s the Golden Rule. It means, don’t just list facts, use examples. Find a case study. More single mothers in work? “Samantha was never so happy as the day she started her new job as a GP surgery receptionist…”
4. Repetition can be bad, but it is also good. It’s good because it’s a way of emphasising your most compelling point. It’s good because it can hammer your point home. It’s good because it is a tool for persuasion – and persuasion is what most writing is about.
5. “A poem should be a closed system,” said WH Auden. In other words, it should be a self-contained unit. The rhetorical term James Joyce used for this is integritas, meaning that the poem – or your report – should contain what belongs to it it, and nothing else. It should have its own integrity. What does this mean to you? It means stick to your point. It means say everything you have to say, and nothing more. Don’t think your report about cutting marketing costs is a good place to start talking about internal communications strategies. Let each paper be whole, and let each paper be itself. They’ll all be much better papers.
And you know what? There’s a bonus. Because the thing about a really great poem is, it makes the reader feel as if you’re telling them something they knew all along, but didn’t know how to say it. I think that’s what ads are about, and even end-of-quarter reports to that difficult head of department. And if you load your paper with ore, make it carry its weight, cut the verbiage, use examples, emphasise your main point and create a little self-contained, convincing unit, you’ll do just that.
Here’s to poetry, then!