Skip to content

Fifteen Rules to Write By

Keith Flynn is a widely traveled poet and perfomer (and a longtime friend of the North Carolina Writers’ Network).

The former lyricist and lead singer of The Crystal Zoo, Flynn is the author of five collections of poetry and a book of essays. His poems have appeared in hundreds of magazines, journals, and anthologies, and he has been nominated for the Putlizer Prize and the National Book Award. He was awarded the Paumanok Poetry Prize in 1996 and the 2013 North Carolina Literary Fellowship. He is also the founder and managing editor of Asheville Poetry Review. His website is www.keithflynn.net.

He offered to share his “Fifteen Rules to Write By,” which originally appeared in his essay collection, The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz and Memory: How To Make Your Poetry Swing.

They’re essential building blocks for anyone hoping to publish and to comport themselves as a professional writer.

Enjoy.

Fifteen Rules to Write By
by Keith Flynn

1. Always allow your true nature to be expressed and apply no limitations to your beginning flow. Let come what may, as
much as possible. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” (William Blake).

2. Inspiration is fleeting. Technique is eternal.

3. “Compose aloud: poetry is a sound” (Basil Bunting).

4. Music is the universal language because it is mathematical. Always know the number of beats in your line, the number of lines that want to be a stanza.

5. Never fall back on Cliché, or use any metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you have ever seen in print.

6. Never use a long word when a short one will do. Scientific terms are rarely short, but have their purpose if they do not
have to be explained. Never explain, never apologize, never withdraw.

7. Examine every sentence for more active verbs. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

8. Clear your poem of abstractions. Never use an abstract concept when a concrete image will do. “No ideas but in things” (William Carlos Williams).

9. Fear gerunds, participles, and adjectives that bleed your nouns of energy.

10. Beware the artificial music of prepositional phrases. Remove them when you can.

11. Give a poem the distance to speak clearly and never send a new poem to be published. Compose in a flood. Edit in a trickle.

12. Cut out every word you possibly can and realize that every line is a muscle in the body of the poem. Be muscular.

13. Less is more. Repeat number twelve. Condensation is the final frontier.

14. Admit no impediment. A poem must flow with authority. Remove all obstacles, technical, psychological, or musical.

15. Rhythm loves proximity. Balance all like sounds for greatest impact. Avoid syncopation unless that is your goal. Variance in rhythm creates surface tension, propulsion and momentum.

P.S. Start the poem with action and leave it in motion.