How to write a sonnet in 3 easy steps

My year 12s have been studying Gwen Harwood’s sonnets where she bitches and moans about the trials and tribulations of motherhood. I know, I just cheapened the role of the stay at home parent. It’s not my true feelings, I really respect people who have the patience to do it, but it’s a true reflection of the tone in Harwood’s verse – even she admits it in a follow up poem she wrote in 1995.

Anyway, as a part of their task I’ve asked them to write a sonnet that mirrors Harwood’s style in some way or another. I like sonnets, their rigidity can be quite confronting for some but I find it comforting. Poetry is subjective but you can walk away from a sonnet knowing whether you’ve ticked the boxes or not. 14 lines? Tick. 10 syllables per line? Tick. Strict rhyme scheme? Tick. Iambic pentameter? Um… maybe.
Obviously you can still tick all these boxes and produce rubbish (as I’ve probably done on numerous occasions) but a terrible sonnet is still a sonnet. So, here’s the steps:
1. Read, re-read and repeat

Taking the adage, ‘write what you know’, how are you meant to know how to write a sonnet if you’re not familiar with them? Read some. Read a lot.
Once you’ve done this, take some of the lines and structures you like in your favourite sonnets and keep a list of them. T.S. Eliot alluded to plenty of texts (sometimes stealing lines from them wholesale) and he’s regarded as aliteracy genius. Why not do the same? Throw an homage to your favourite poets inside your own verse.

2. Storm your brain

Pick something that you want to write about and make a list of words associated with that topic. Try not to think about it too much; the more spontaneous your planning, the more honest your writing.

Once you’ve got this list together (aim for 10 words, do more if you want but don’t fret if you end up with less) try to come up with rhymes for some of your words. There’s plenty of rhyming dictionaries online if this proves to be a difficult task.

3. Write right now

This is the hard part. What, you thought there was some simple solution? There kinda is. You can always break the poem down into three quatrains (4 lines) and a couplet (2 lines). This can be less stressful as you’re only writing a maximum of 4 lines at a time as opposed to the thought of writing 14 lines in one hit.

My drafts don’t always feature a lot of editing but that’s because I do a lot of syllable counting and reworking lines before I put them on paper.

Anyway, that’s all there is to it. Happy writing!

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