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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finding the right word

Poets often have a favorite method of writing, and mine is to let words flow without censoring or editing until the poem has finished pouring onto paper and/or into my pc then taken a rest. Later, when I go back to revise, I read the poem aloud to locate and repair any rough spots.

With or without revision, a poem can speak clearly and well but still lack oomph. Sometimes this happens because of a lack of the imagery needed to help readers envision the experience or sometimes because of a lack of the sound echoes and musicality needed to create auditory interest or sometimes because of a lack of poetic energy, which is a nice way of saying: That poem is blah!

Correcting this situation most likely means spending a little more time with the poem and maybe with a thesaurus. To speed up the latter, I generally revise from my Word file, right-clicking onto each blah word then clicking onto the choice of “Synonyms,” but which one?

To find which synonyms will be effective in your poem, try this:

• Replace an abstract, unclear, or stale word with a synonym that increases the sound echoes in that line or the lines adjacent.

• Look for a word choice with interesting, thought-provoking connotations that add a new dimension or layer of meaning.

• Listen for the needed number of syllables. If your poem has a multi-syllabic word that mars the rhythm, find a synonym with one or two syllables to enhance the beat – or vice versa!

• Your best options for each new word choice will depend on the context of the poem, your overall theme, and the surrounding sounds, thoughts, or imagery you want to emphasize.

Hopefully, this will help to show what I mean:

The Poet in Pursuit of a Still, Right Word

The white stalk
of egret work
equals perfection:
the S-shape
rocks forward
toward some intended
goal – a mystery
to me as it doesn’t
seem to notice
fish erupting
erratically in its
unruffled wake.

© 2012, Mary Harwell Sayler

In revising “The Poet in Pursuit of a Still, Right Word,” I wanted the poem to illustrate everything I just said. So the word “stalk” might bring to mind the kind of stalks you find in leggy plants such as the ones growing in the margins of a lake where an egret “plants” itself in pursuit of dinner. In addition, the egret is most definitely a stalker stalking its prey. Then, the slow, determined movement toward the next fishing spot comes in a forward-rocking motion that shapes the bird into a big “S,” which hopefully evokes that very picture.

One evening, however, I watched an egret concentrate on one spot without moving as fish swished and splashed all around those long legs! What a picture of attentiveness to the task! And that’s the final image I hope to convey:

As you look and listen for the right word, sharpen your focus. Don’t let eruptive options ruffle you or unreal words reel you in. Observe. Be precise, and be like an egret – on the lookout for each freshly-caught word to surface and splash tastefully into line.

© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, all rights reserved.


  1. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightning bug." Excellent instructional and inspirational post for poets.