Writing Tips

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Tip 1…

  • Writing in verse is not as easy as it may first appear.
  • There are three parts to writing publishable verse…
      • STORY/THEME
      • RHYTHM (meter)
      • RHYME
    • Your story or your theme is the most important element.
    • Next comes the meter or the rhythm of your verse.
    • The rhyme should be incidental, an added bonus, not the main player.

Common Mistakes…

I have been writing and editing rhyming poems and stories in verse for many years now and below are some of the commons mistakes that I have encountered.

  • Too many overused words…
    • came, went, walk, sat etc. Poetry is an economical medium. If someone is walking, how are they walking? Replace common verbs with more vibrant ones. Eg – tripping, scurrying, scuttling, sloping, gliding etc.
    • avoid too many adverbs. If someone is walking slowly, use strong verbs like, dragged or dawdled rather than the adverb slowly. It just paints a brighter more vivid picture.
    • cliches are another thing to avoid. To be unique you will need to be creative. Some examples of cliches are…
      • as black as night
        as white as snow
        as cold as ice
        as slow as a snail
  • Near rhymes are perfectly acceptable if everything else, the meter and the story is perfect. Otherwise they should be avoided. If you can’t find the perfect rhyme then I would suggest looking at changing the line around to create more options.

Style is not how you write.
It is how you do not write like anyone else.

Charles Ghigna (Father Goose)

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Tip 2…

  • Does meter matter?

As far as I’m concerned, without meter nothing matters!!.

.

  • So what exactly is meter?

Meter is the rhythm of our language. It’s the drum beat that rocks the poem along. It should be predictable and so established right from the start. This allows the reader to relax – it’s a bit like jogging. Once the rhythm is established you can jog for miles! Without this predictable rhythm the reader will trip up which will pull them out of the story while they try to adjust to the new rhythm.

 

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Common mistakes…

  • Altering where the stress falls naturally to fit the meter

Song writers do this quite often but it doesn’t seem as jarring when there is music to go along with the words. Poetry is different, especially poetry that is designed to be read by people other than the author.

When we learn to speak a language we are taught to pronounce words according to where their stresses fall. Different accents will sometimes stress different parts of the word.

Eg: the word ‘paprika’ in English is pronounced PAprika, with the stress falling on the first syllable. In the US it is pronounced paPRIka, with the stress falling on the middle syllable.

If I was looking to rhyme with the word paprika, I could use either ‘Africa’ or ‘eureka’ depending on which country I was writing for. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to translate poetry across countries even if they speak English.

Here’s another eg:

I tipped my hat and waved goodbye

And walked away with my Bonsai

What’s wrong with this couplet? Bonsai certainly rhymes with goodbye but why doesn’t it sound right? Below is an alternative – why does this read more smoothly?

I tipped my hat and waved goodbye

And wiped a teardrop from my eye

Okay – here’s the secret. In natural speech the word ‘goodbye’ is made up of two syllables, ‘good’ and ‘bye’. The stress falls on the second syllable – goodBYE.

The word ‘bonsai’ on the other hand, while also made up of two syllables, has it’s stressed syllable falling naturally on the first one. BONsai.

The pattern or meter for this couplet goes like this…

I tipped my hat and waved goodbye – an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

And walked away with my Bonsai – now we have two stressed syllables running into each other. The author is likely to adjust how they pronounce the word ‘bonsai’ and put the stress on the second syllable. They will do this instinctively when they read it aloud and will miss the discrepancy. The new reader, however will try to pronounce the word as it is spoken normally and will trip up the first time he/she reads it. A good indication of whether you have made this mistake in your own writing is to get a friend to read it aloud and note where they stumble.

 

And will you succeed? Yes indeed, yes indeed! Ninety-eight and three-quarters percent guaranteed!

Dr.Seuss

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Tip 3…

.

  • Iambic Pentameter says what?

Could there a be a more complicated way of saying, knit one pearl one five times?.

Let me explain…

The English language, the one you and I speak fluently is considered a stressed language. Its words are broken up into syllables which are the raw material for meter. In tip 2 above I showed that words with more that one syllable usually have one syllable stressed more strongly than the other. Generally speaking the words that we tend NOT to stress are considered FUNCTION WORDS. These are…

  • Determiners e.g. the, a, some, a few
  • Auxiliary verbs e.g. don’t, am, can, were
  • Prepositions e.g. before, next to, opposite
  • Conjunctions e.g. but, while, as
  • Pronouns e.g. they, she, us

.

Now back to the knitting metaphor. In order to create the pattern below…

…you have to knit one, then pearl one all along the row. Think of the knit stitch as an unstressed syllable and the pearl stitch as a stressed syllable. This is what iambic meter is. One unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. If we were to follow this pattern for ten stitches (syllables) i.e. kp|kp|kp|kp|kp| we would have written a verse in iambic pentameter, where pentameter = 5. We would also be on our way to knitting a very lovely scarf!

Here’s an example of a poem written in iambic pentameter…

.

I’ve searched and searched my archives deepest files

It’s taken a substantial block of time

And though I’ve written verse in range of styles

Iambic pent-a-meter’s not my rhyme

.


Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.

A.A. Milne

 

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Tips 4…

What do the publishers have to say.

 

Just recently I was asked to sit on a panel at The Ballarat Writers’ Festival to discuss the art of writing in rhyme. To Rhyme or not to Rhyme, that was the question. Rather than give my personal opinion I thought it might be of interest to ask the powers that be, the publishers of Australian children’s books themselves.

I spoke with over half a dozen publishers & editors and their answers were extremely telling. Below is what some of them had to say.

Do you publish rhyming picture books?

  • Yes
  • Yes
  • We publish very few picture books full stop, and rhyming ones are generally treated with even more caution. We have published about three in the last four years.
  • We’ll publish what’s good. That said there’s a lot of bad rhyming manuscripts that come in our doo, which makes it harder to see those that really work. A rhyming picture has to be an even better book than a straight text for it to say to us ‘Publish me”.
  • Yes. But not a lot.
  • Yes.

Are rhyming picture books difficult to sell overseas?

    • Yes
    • Yes, they do not translate with rhyme. English speaking countries are usually fine.
    • Certainly selling translation rights is more difficult, for obvious reasons.
    • They can’t readily be translated.
    • Yes. They obviously don’t work well in translation.
    • Yes — the British and Americans speak with different rhythms, and some words sound different in American. If a translation, then it is the illustrations which are evaluated more than the stories.

What are the most common difficulties that writers in rhyme encounter?

  • They haven’t got a sense of timing – rhythm or flow.
  • From a publishing point of view rhyming books do present challenges at the editing stage.
  • Metre metre metre! So few submissions have pleasing, easy metre. Read your poem aloud. Do you have to work hard to fit your words into your metre? Do you adjust the stress on ANY of the words (i.e. do you say them differently to the way you say them in natural speech)? Rewrite those lines!! I cannot emphasise enough how important metre is to poetry.
  • They think the rhyme excuses a whole lot of other flaws, including poor rhymes. Rhyming is a subtle and complex art that deserves years of study and then you have to make it work for children and then in a picture book format. You need a great story first and one that works for children, which has a proper beginning, middle and end.
  • Bad rhythm and forced rhyme. There should be no extra words to get the rhythm to work ‘such as the lion did say” instead of ‘said’ or reversals of words to get the rhyme, ie  ‘lion blue’ to rhyme with ‘you’ instead of blue lion. In other words the rhyme has to be very natural. The other thing to bear in mind is that many people don’t have a natural sense of rhythm anyway, and read rhyme and the emphasis on the words differently. The rhyme has to be very consistent to avoid such differences. The other thing I find is that the necessity to rhyme often means that the story goes in different directions when inexperienced writers attempt to write rhyme, so there can be dead spots ion the story or extraneous material (if that makes sense). It is very difficult to get good succinct rhyme which keeps to the storyline. Rhyme that works better is when writers are not trying to write rhyming couplets, but stick to a simple repetitive couplet such as ‘I went walking. What did you see. I saw a red cow looking at me.’ Or ‘Let’s go visiting what do you say. Two black kittens are ready to play.’
  • Rhythms and rhymes that are “not quite there”.

Who do you think are today’s most successful rhyming picture book writers?

  • Mark Carthew & Janeen Brian
  • Mem Fox, Pamela Allen, Lucy Cousins, Julia Donaldson
  • Dr Seuss
  • Doug MacLeod is one of the best. And Graeme Base.
  • Julia Donaldson

Do you have any favourite rhyming picture books.

  • No.  I am neither a fan of nor a critic of such picture books.  The picture book must simply strike me as unique and perfect – it has nothing to do with rhyme.
  • Of course the I Spy Books by Janeen Brian and The Gobbling Tree by Mark Carthew – a brilliant book for boys. My favourite classic is without a doubt My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson. The more traditional version is in A Child’s Garden of Verse, a gorgeous updated version was illustrated by Monique Felix using mice!
  • Anything by Dr Seuss
    Isabella’s Garden, by Glenda Millard
    Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox
    The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson
  • I Went Walking, Lets Go Visiting, Sister Madge’s Book of Nuns, Ballroom Bonanza
  • Julia Donaldson’s — THE GRUFFALO

So there you have it. Straight from the horses mouths. And if you’re not sure what it is we mean by meter, please do ask about my 12 page PDF booklet ‘How to Write Rhyme like the Experts’

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27 Responses to Writing Tips

  1. john malone says:

    very useful tips, Jackie especially on the economic use of words which I sometimes neglect and on the difficult topic of metre which even now I am capable of messing up: the stress concept is very helpful. thanks

    • Jackie Hosking says:

      Glad you found it useful John – it took me a long time to understand the technical side of meter. The bush poets do it beautifully.

  2. Janeen Brian says:

    Writing rhyming verse is often like swapping jigsaw pieces of words around to fit the meaning, the rhythm and the rhyme. A great jigsaw is not often finished in one sitting. Neither is a great poem.

  3. Carol Hepburn says:

    thanks Jackie the way you explain concepts is so easy
    to comprehend and makes you want to get out there
    and rhyme.

  4. Scott Chambers says:

    Hmm … altering where stresses fall to make things fit?
    Gosh, who would do a dastardly thing like that??

    Thanks for the great tips Jacie =)

  5. Yes this is a very nice article, I agree with what you have to say and also thank you for all the helpful information here. There is a lot to reading poetry and I think it helps children enjoy reading along with a whisper of a tune within it. THank you, Dvora

  6. Helen Ross says:

    Great tips Jackie. Thanks for helping me to be more conscious of the stressed and unstressed syllables. Yes, there certainly is a lot more to finding the right rhyming words.

  7. Lynn Ward says:

    Great advice Jackie, and I love Dvora’s expression ‘enjoy reading along with a whisper of a tune in it’ – beautiful.

  8. Kelly Hart says:

    Hi Jackie,

    You have done a wonderful job on your tips for poetry post. I think it is fantastic and very helpful.

    Regards,
    Kelly

  9. Hi Jackie,

    Useful tips and you have explained them really well. When is was studying Poetry at Uni it took me ages to get my head around Iambic Petameter. I remember thinking ‘is that even a word?’ But once you get the hang of it, it is just like knitting as second nature. Great reference. I love the pic too!
    Regards
    Donna

  10. Janeen Brian says:

    Thanks again, Jackie; I think the knitting analogy goes hand-in-hand, or stitch-in-stitch with the rhythm of my latest rhyming picture book, ‘Shirl and the Wollomby Show.’
    I have never understood or taken much notice of the technical terms – just went with gut feeling:
    ‘Shirl stamped and she muttered, “That Gertrude’s a twit.
    But I’ll bet that old goat doesn’t know how to knit!”‘

    (from Shirl and the Wollomby Show)

    Janeen

  11. Great post, Jackie,

    You make it sound so simple. Very clearly explained and achievable.

    Thanks for all this really useful information.

    Dee

  12. Lexie Mitchell says:

    Thank you so much for your great advice and tips Jackie. Very helpful, especially for a struggling amateur like me. I love the way you write. Short on words and strong on articulation.

  13. I loved your knitting analogy Jackie, and the comments from the publishers. I’ll recommend the blog in the next bulletin (though I trust I won’t be doing resident poet-assessor John out of business at our end!) Still, this is really good stuff – things that I find myself telling people over and over. Well done!

  14. Trish. says:

    Thank you Jackie, that’s so helpful. My characters always make-up songs and I try to get the rhymes right. This will be great. All I need now is to find someone top write the music to go with the words. Teehee. I have a few people in mind.

  15. Murray Alfredson says:

    These comments might be well and good for children’s verse, but they seem to me to be the voice of ‘perfection’ rarely seen in the history of English poetry.

    1. Good rhyme is often these days playful rhyme, that is deliberately ‘off’, either as assonance occasionally replacing rhymes, identical final consonants but with vowells that imperfectly echo the first of the set, unstressed syllables rhymed with stressed syllables. Robert Graves was superb at this last trick, for example in his ‘The white goddess’:

    …whom we desire above all things to know,
    sister of the mirage and echo.

    I have rhymed words like ‘stay’ against such as ‘be’, bearing in mind that the vowel of ‘stay’ is not one vowel, but a dipthong that slides from something like a short ‘e’ to a long ‘i:’. This not merely that English has become one of the hardest languages in which to rhyme, compared say to Italian or German, and even the English of Shakepeare’s day, since many final syllables are no longer pronounced, e.g ‘excused’. Consider these lines from the close of Romeo and Juliet:

    The sun for sorrow will not show his head;
    Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
    Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished.

    2. I do know my metres and rhythms, and I have written in a variety of metres, including some of the complex lyric metres of Classical Greek verse (alcaics, aesclepiads), Germanic alliterative accentual verse, as well as the more common English Iambic lines of various lengths (from 2-7 feet). I also know that even the poets who, such as the Augustans of the late 17th and early 18th century, devised ways to break the steady monotony imposed by the strict coincidence of speech rhythm and metre. Pope use what are called ‘reversed feet’, replacing here and there an iambic foot with a trochee. I think if one examined Shakespeares blank verse one would find him to have been freer than this, admitting the odd extra unstressed syllable here and there. Certainly lyric poets a bit later in the 17th century did so.

    Indeed, one of the most insightful books on verse metrics in English, James McAuley’s A primer of English versification, develops a theory that the rhythmic interest of a poem lies in the tension between metre (the strict underlying pattern) and natural speech rhythm. And none could accuse McAuley of being sloppy in his versification, no matter what else one might wish to say of him.

    So while I agree that rhythm and metre are the formal basis of poetry, and while I also go along by and large with A.D. Hope’s strictures on free verse, that it is like a hall full of people who continue to improvise their dance steps long after the band has stopped playing, I do think some freeing up is needed. Metre and rhythm are not the same thing. Variation, like musical syncopation or modulation of the key, is important to good poetry.

    3. The strictures against so-called ‘reversals’ of ‘normal’ word order are also unnecessarily rigid. Such ‘rules’ in the long run will rob our language of what little syntactic flexibility it has left with the loss of our systems of inflexions through the cases, of nouns, adjectives and articles. It is possible without ambiguity to write the object of a sentence before the verb and the subject, for example; it is likewise possible to place the adjective after the noun it qualifies. Such ‘reversal’ can change the emphasis and enhance the intended meaning. Consider for example the subtle change of emphasis on the word high in these two versions of the one phrase:

    …their high circles…
    …their circles high…

    There is a rhythmic difference, as the first juxtaposes two strongly stressed syllables. But more importantly, the reversal brings the focus of attention on to the adjective ‘high’. Last year I took issue with an editor in New York about this sort of thing, and ‘archaisms’ in poetry; she invited me to write on the subject, and was very pleased with the result. The essay was published in the May or June issue of the e-journal, Umbrella. She did also challenge me to draw my examples from poetry published from about the mid-twentieth century. I was myself surprised how quickly I found examples from which to select my illustrations. Rigidity over any principle of poetics is not a good thing. I can even think of some very fine poems I know that do not follow the principles of rhythm I have advocated here, just as it is possible to find superb poems written without images.

    I do, however, go along completely with the principle of economy with words.

    • Jackie Hosking says:

      Thank you Murray for taking the time to share your knowledge and expertise. Breaking the rules is all part of the fun, and I’m sure you’ll agree that first we must learn what they are.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Good one , Jackie! I agree with John – good to be reminded! 🙂

  17. I enjoyed reading your advice, Jackie. I’m thankful for the many times you’ve helped me.

    I also loved reading all the comments, learning even more. Thanks so much!

  18. Murray Alfredson says:

    Yes Jackie, and be it noted that my opening remark about those ‘rules’ being all well and good for children’s poetry was not intended as a put down, because in my experience children love regularity of pattern in both metre and rhyme. Nor am I keen on free verse; indeed, I think the movement towards free verse early last century, late the century before, did us a disservice by attacking the idea of underlying regularities. (Eliot and Pound both wrote formal regular verse as well as their free verse, of course). Second, the French might have thought they invented verse libre in the nineteenth century. They only re-invented the wheel. Germans such as Klopstock and Goethe and Hoelderlin were writing free verse 100 years earlier, and did not see that as a cause to make a song about. And then consider the ancient poetry of the Levant, Hebrew and Egyptian and of other peoples in that region. Their parallel verse had its regularities but also its formal freedom.

    I do feel strongly about establishing an underlying metric pattern or rhythmic pattern (in free verse); without it one falls into the dreariness AD Hope complained of (and his poetry was not ‘perfectly’ regular. I have formed a rule of thumb for myself that one needs to establish a predominant pattern early in a poem, and keep to it within a certain limited lattitude. When it comes to rhyme, one of my pet hates is beginning a poem with rhyme, and then not sustaining it.

    As for grammar rules, let us fight to keep the old grammar still available. And let us not brand words ‘archaic’. The OED can be very wrong in this, and it did not attempt to be prescriptive, but always took the descriptive route.

  19. Jenni L Ivins says:

    Thanks Jackie. Great to see what publishers have to say about rhymed picture story books.
    cheers,
    Jenni

  20. Pingback: Want to write rhyme like an expert? | Sheryl Gwyther – author

  21. ANN JACOBS says:

    I teach at a reading school where we deal with children with reading problems and the kids LOVE reading fictional poetry. I find they learn and understand the grammar of English and words quicker and easier when placed within a context of good rhythm and yes, rhyme.

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