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Warm up for writing with poem sketching

I’ve known artists who begin a painting by making a sketch. I see this as a form of experimentation or a rough draft to get a sense of what could be. As a writer, I practice my own form of sketching by playing with words on a page to see what images and ideas rise to the surface.

I first began this form of poetic sketching after reading the book “Poemcrazy” by Susan Wooldridge. I’d type random words in rows on a page, cut them up, and place them in a jar. Taking a handful of words, I’d see which words resonated and how they could be arranged to create a whole. This form of poem making reminds me of how I view writing poetry as a puzzle to solve, figuring out the best way to fit words together to form a pleasing whole.

More recently, I’ve tuned into words as I read, with the idea of finding meaning that might translate into a poem or idea. When I read a word or phrase that instinctively feels poetic to me, I highlight it and add it to my notebook. Just re-reading the words and phrases has a way of putting me into a writing groove where I can imagine the possibilities.

In his book, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out: Finding Your Voice Through the Craft of Poetry, the late poet and teacher Sandford Lyne wrote about the process of taking groups of words and phrases and developing them into combinations of sentences that feel like poems. He called this process “poem sketching.” He wrote:

“I use poem-sketching as a means for practicing the instrument of poetic thinking in much the same way a musician does warm-up exercises or practices scales on a musical instrument. I also use it as a means for generating not-yet-comprehended possibilities for poems.”

Try it yourself. What words spark a memory, emotion, imagination, or idea? What words sound poetic to you? This initial exploration is your starting point. Collect words and group them. Mix up words and phrases using your intuition and imagination. Combine them to see what feels right. Try taking a general word and making it more specific. Cat may become Siamese, and bird becomes cactus wren or quail.

These sample words and phrases may spark your foray into poem sketching:

far away

secret of the evening



buried life



For related ways of “sketching” words and images to spark writing ideas, read these posts:

How drawing can help you become a better writer

The power of clustering to generate writing ideas

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