The way to great writing? Slow down

Last weekend, I attended the Northwest Poet’s Concord right here in beautiful Newport, Oregon, and I learned a few things. Don’t tune out if you’re not a poet because the most important lesson I learned applies to all kinds of writing—as well as to other things in life.

The workshops covered many different aspects of poetry, from line breaks to language to setting poems to music, but for me it all boiled down to one thing: slow down and pay attention. Don’t just whip it out and call it done.

Our keynote speaker David Biespiel, poet and poetry columnist for the Oregonian newspaper, showed how us how to read poetry in a way I had never tried. Don’t just dive in, he said. Prepare.He compared us to Olympic divers, who spend more time preparing than actually diving. When preparing to read a poem, look at the title and think about what it suggests the poem is about. Think about the poet. What do you know about him or her and the era in which they wrote this? Read the first line and stop. Consider that line as an entity on its own. Now go down to the bottom and read the last line. How does that relate to the title and the first line? Then look at the ends of the lines. What kinds of words do you see? Are they concrete, philosophical, erudite, slang? Do they rhyme? Finally, read the poem, slowly. Then read it again.

Now, try this with your own poems as if you have never seen them before, as if you were a reader approaching them for the first time. Look at the title, look at the first line, look at the last line, etc.

Another session focused on revision, particularly the use of line breaks and sentences. The instructor urged us to consider every choice we make. Why are we breaking the line here? Why are we putting a comma there? Can we justify every adverb or adjective or are they just lazy ways of saying something that could be said with one powerful word if we took the time to find it?

Finally, choose the strongest line in your poem and work to make every line meet the same standard. Stop and think about this. Find the strongest line and work to make every line meet the same standard.

For prose writers, instead of lines, we can think of paragraphs. Maybe you have a brilliant first paragraph, but some of the others are just . . . there. Can you make them better? Can you leave them out? What about characters? Are a few so clearly drawn you can see and hear them while others are clichéd or vague? Stop and make each one as strong as the best.

As a former newspaper reporter, I write in a hurry. What if I took more time? What if I sat with that poem, story, essay, or novel as if it were the only one I would ever write?

This, I think, is the key to greatness. Try it. Take one piece of writing and see what you can do. Maybe a few changes will make it stronger. Remember, if you don’t like the changes, you can always delete and start over, and Word has a wonderful feature called “undo.” Control Z.

I’m heading out to the backyard now with one of the poems I read at the Concord. I thought it was fine before, but now, I think I can make it better.

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