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Monday, March 2, 2015

How to ruin an almost good poem

For over a decade I have chaired the poetry division in a well-run writing competition for poets and writers, and each year I've noticed similar mistakes in poems that almost placed. Having learned from this recurring cycle of flaws and errors, I thought you'd welcome the following list of things to avoid – not as you write, but as you revise.

• Expressing excessive enthusiasm for a topic or using saccharine phrases and words such as tears, heart, share, cry, and dear ole something or other

• Making incredible statements or spouting opinions with nothing to substantiate the facts

• Stating the obvious

• Flatly stating something in lines that sermonize or do not hum true

• Giving unasked-for advice in a bombastic tone, laying on guilt trips that drive people away, or just generally venting and spewing

• Putting down a person or a group or, worse, bad-mouthing God!

• Using punctuation like chicken pox

• Using fonts, colors, or patterns that turn an editor’s eyes into disco balls

• Talking to yourself without even a nod to your readers

• Saying nothing fresh, insightful, imaginative, interesting, or new

• Using clichés that were imaginative and new a long time ago

• Using crude words, vulgar language, or other device for shock value

• Emphasizing thoughts or phrases that do not warrant flashing headlines or rhyming endlines

• Getting locked into endline rhymes so strongly that the syntax suffers or the rhyming words aren’t worth the emphasis – for instance, rhyming “the” and “me”

• Compressing too much by omitting articles and other business words that help people communicate and make sense, or, more likely…

• Going on and on….

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler has 3 books of poetry, Outside Eden and Beach Songs & Wood Chimes, published by Kelsay Books in 2014 and, in 2012, Living in the Nature Poem published by Hiraeth Press with an e-book version released in 2014.



  1. Thanks, Joyce! And thanks, too, to Twitter followers who RT'd this. :)

  2. All that advice can be so hard to swallow,
    You speak words of truth- and those I will follow! ;)

  3. Good for you, Beth! That's the attitude needed to have poems accepted in journals.

  4. Such great advice, Mary! As I've confessed to you before, poetry is my writing weakness, but these rules could also apply to prose, too. Thanks so much!

  5. Thank you this is good stuff. Things I do yet was never told not to. I really appreciate everything you write, it is so encouraging.

  6. I tend to be long winded, working on that.

    1. Marsha, that's a common concern for many poets. Reading then intentionally writing 4-line humorous poems or 3-line haiku can help.

  7. Thank you for sharing this valuable advise, Mary.

    1. You're surely welcome, Laurie. Thanks for letting me know it helped. God bless.

  8. The coolest advice I can think of, Mary. Thank you for telling me that a while ago. It is the best rule to begin editing. ��❤️❤️