John Foster

children's poet

Advice To Young Poets

John Foster’s Poetry Tips

TIP 1: Decide what you want your poem to say

Whenever you write a story, you are trying to tell the person who reads it something. It may be something funny, something frightening, something mysterious or something unusual. Whatever the story is about, there is a reason why you are telling it.

The same should be true about any poem you write. It should have a purpose – a reason why you are writing it.

  • You may want your poem to be funny, to be centred around a humorous incident or joke.
  • You may want it to say something serious about the world in which we live.
  • You may want it to catch the reader by surprise, because it looks at something ordinary from a different angle.
  • You may want it to tell a real story or to recount an imaginary incident which has a moral to it.
  • You may want your poem to present an argument, to express an opinion or a point of view.
  • You may want to play with words in your poem or to present the words in a particular way, for example to form a shape, in order to produce a particular effect.

Whenever you decide to write a poem, you need to have a clear idea of what you want to say in the poem. So if you decide to write a poem for the Bookfeast competition, be sure that you have a clear idea about the purpose of your poem.

TIP 2: Making a rhyme – The golden rule

There are lots of poetry forms you can use from rhyming couplets, syllable poems and raps to shape poems, recipe poems and free verse poems. Which form you choose will depend on what your poem’s purpose is (see last week’s tip) and what you want to say.

A lot of people think that a poem must rhyme. But there are many forms of non-rhyming poems. For example, you could set out your poem as a set of rules, as a conversation between two people, as an advertisement or as a poster.

However, if you do decide to make your poem rhyme, then you must follow the golden rule of rhyming poetry and make sure your rhyme makes sense, and fits the meaning of the poem. If you use a rhyme, because it’s the only one you can think of, the chances are that it will spoil your poem.

So what can you do, if you are stuck for a rhyme? Try going through the alphabet listing all the words that make the same rhyme sound as the one you want. Let’s say you want to find a rhyme for light. Your list might consist of bite bright fight flight fright height kite night right sight tight.

If going through the alphabet still leaves you stuck, then try looking in a rhyming dictionary, such as the Oxford Junior Rhyming Dictionary. For example, you’ll find that it suggests over 40 words that rhyme with light!

If that doesn’t solve the problem, then the best thing to do is to change the line which ends with the word for which you can’t find a rhyme, so that you have another word at the end of the line.

Writing a rhyming poem isn’t always easy, but it’s far better to struggle to find rhymes that fits in with what you are saying in the poem than to take the easy way out by using rhymes that don’t really fit.


TIP 3: Choosing the most powerful words

You need to think carefully about each word you use in your poem.

  • Don’t be satisfied with the first word that comes into your head. It may turn out to be the most effective word, But before you decide that it is, dig down into your vocabulary and see if there is another word that you could use that would be more effective.

Let’s say you are looking for a verb to describe the water in a river flowing swiftly after a storm. The first word that comes into your head is rushing. Then you think of alternatives – gushing, flooding, raging, surging, racing, hurtling, swirling, cascading. Which word(s) you choose will depend on how they fit into your poem. You might write about the raging river racing by or describe the cascading current.

  • As well as drawing on your own vocabulary, use a thesaurus. It will help you to find alternatives to the first words that you think, which tend to be the most common everyday words that we use and, therefore, less descriptive.
  • Think about not only the meaning of the words you choose, but of anything that is associated with particular words. For example, if you write the line ‘The night was as cold as stone’, the word stone suggests hardness and, therefore, that it was cold enough to freeze the ground hard.
  • Make sure that every word you use is worth its place in your poem. Do not cram too many words into your poem. For example, if you write about the raging, surging, cascading torrent you are in danger of over-writing and using three words where two would do. It can be better to leave out one of the words and to say either the raging, surging torrent or the surging, cascading torrent.
  • So be prepared when you are finishing drafting your poem to cut words out. This is particularly important when you are making sure that the rhythm of the poem is right. For example, when you are writing a rhyming poem and you are using a particular verse form, you need to check that you have the right number of syllables in each line. Check that you’ve got the rhythm right by reading the poem aloud.


TIP 4: Be original

The best poems are original in some way. They catch the reader by surprise, because they express a thought or a feeling in a way that’s different. It may be because of the words that the writer has chosen or because of the form that is used. It may be because the poem has an unexpected twist at the end or it may be as a result of an unusual comparison that is made.

  • When you are making a comparison it’s important to avoid using a cliché. A cliché is a word or a phrase that has been used so often that it has lost most of its force and effectiveness . We use clichés a lot in our everyday lives. For example, we might say that something is as light as feather, as cold as ice or as dry as dust. When you are writing a poem, however, try to make comparisons that are more effective because they create an image that is different. For example, you might say that something is as light as a puff of mist, or as cold as an icy stare or as dry as a witch’s handshake.
  • It is important that any comparison you make is appropriate. For example, you might describe hailstones as ricocheting off the road like bullets, but to describe hailstones falling from the sky like lumps of coal does not work because hailstones are white and coal is black. Similarly, you could describe the stars as silver dots sewn on the sky’s dark cloak, but not as silver spoons on a black tablecloth, because the stars are not shaped like spoons.
  • How you end your poem is important. Think carefully about the last line. The more surprising it is, the more impact it will have. Often, what makes a poem memorable is that the final line is a dramatic punchline, which emphasises the poem’s message or that gives the poem an unexpected twist.


TIP 5: Writing syllable poems

The poetry forms that you may choose to use may be a syllable poem, such as a haiku,a cinquains or a diamond poem. But you need to beware: syllable poems are not as easy to write as they may seem. There’s far more to a good syllable poem than just counting the number of syllables in each line.

A good syllable poem has a clear purpose. It may be to describe something, to present an opinion or to make a particular point.

Here’s an example of a cinquain – a form of poetry that consists of five lines containing 22 syllables. Line one has two syllables, line two has four, line three has six, line four has eight and line 5 has two.

The poem’s purpose is to describe how spring snow is fragile and swiftly disappears . It does this by using a comparison that suggests the snowflakes are as delicate as butterflies and by the choice of the words ‘flimsy’ and ‘vanish’. Notice how the verbs in lines two and four are emphasised by putting them at the beginning of the line and how ‘slip’ and ‘brush’ suggest fragility. The final line consists of the single word ‘vanish’, which stresses how shortlived the snow is. In short, it’s a carefully crafted poem, in which the poet has done more than just count the syllables in each line.

Spring Snow


Slip from the sky

Like soft white butterflies,

Brush the trees with their flimsy wings,



If you do decide to use a form of syllable poem in your entry for the competition, it’s a good idea to write a sequence of three or four poems in the same form. Because of its brevity, a single haiku or cinquain is unlikely to be chosen as the winner, unless it is exceptional.

And remember, just getting the right number of syllables in each line isn’t sufficient. There’s more to writing a good poem than counting syllables.