Some Sonnet Writing Advice from the Sonnet Board

Below are some comments from visitors to the Sonnet Board that may be of help to those writing their first sonnets. Good luck to you, and don't be discouraged--usually, several revisions will be needed before you find what you are after (it will be well worth the effort). See an example of one sonnet that benefited greatly from revision.

From David Keith Johnson

. . . begin by walking. The "foot" of the meter really has to do with how you use your feet. So you go "step-STEP" (that is, fall a little harder on the second step). Do this five times and stop. That is what one line FEELS like, and this is about feelings, not definitions.

Now, what to write about? You wouldn't be the first to write about writing sonnets. But don't try too hard. Start by getting the rhythm, and you will get this by stepping.

For example, you might just start walking:

(step-STEP, step-STEP, step-STEP, step-STEP, step-STEP)

Do it enough times, words might come into your head, maybe on their own. Give them TIME. Here is a silly example.

"Some GOO-fy GUY said I should TAKE a WALK (now pause)
if I would WRITE a GOO-fy SON-net VERSE (pause again)
but I don't UN-der-STAND his CRAZ-y TALK (now you're going)
and WALK-ing ON-ly SEEMS to MAKE it WORSE" (almost half-way)

You will do much better than this silly stuff, but relax and play. It is about pleasure. As a rather older guy who has been wacking at them since I was fourteen or so, I can tell you it is worth it. Good luck. Remember to take TIME.

From Jason

. . . For your purposes, the English or Shakespearian sonnet would be the easiest to write:

It consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter (an iamb is a "foot" consisting of 2 syllables, 1 unaccented and 1 accented):

when I / con SID / er HOW / my LIFE / is SPENT
that TIME / of YEAR / thou MAYST / in ME / be HOLD


when I / have FEARS / that I / may CEASE / to BE

Some people will insist that only the number of accents (5) and not the total number of syllables per line (10) matters, and there is some justification for that view:

ah, DO / NOT, when / my HEART / hath 'SCAP'D / this SOR / row (11 syllables)

The accented syllables can, obviously, be moved about with some degree of variation within the line, but must always remain clearly musical:

WHEN in / dis GRACE / with FOR / tune and / MEN'S EYES

The 14 lines are divided into 3 quatrains (4-line stanzas) and a final couplet by different groups of rhyming words:

a hold
b hang
a cold
b sang

c day
d west
c way
d rest

e fire
f lie
e expire
f by

g strong
g long

Each quatrain develops a complete idea; sometimes the same idea is developed in 3 different ways in the 3 quatrains, sometimes the quatrains develop 3 different but closely related ideas. The closing couplet is a conclusion based on the material contained in the quatrains.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 is a good example of all these points:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

From Remco van der Zwaag

The five foot meter: what is the big deal?
Ten syllables per line is what it takes,
"ta TUM" times five, that is the beat it makes.
Just write a few and you will get the feel.

This penta-thing, it has its own appeal,
Especially if from its swing you break
Away. Slight change will subtly make your bake
More tasty, spicy: practice it with zeal!

And somehow to the sonnet it belongs,
It gives a bronzen sound to all these songs
That suits the thoughts of pensive poets well.

Of this pentameter be not afraid.
Just practice it, and you will get your grade
And when you do, well then, come back and tell!

From Mike Alexander

. . . I'm sure you've looked up enough of the definition of "sonnet" to know that the word refers to a form, in particular a fourteen line poem with a rhyme "scheme." What particular scheme or pattern of rhyming you use is up for discussion, & thereby hangs a lot of the debate that goes on between sonnetizers, but the most common schemes are most commonly known as the English or the Italian. Following one of these or the other variations is half the battle.

To put it briefly, the English is made of three quatrains, each with their own rhymes, capped off with a couplet (in "scansion" form: abab cdcd efef gg). The Italian is made of an octave & a sestet (one possible scan: abbaabba cdecde). Obviously you base your decision as to which of the forms to use on the rhetorical strengths & weaknesses of whatever it is you personally wish to express. That's how such a seemingly rigid system ends up turning out so many pieces of such individual personality.

You've got to figure in your own strengths & weaknesses. For instance, if you have trouble holding together anything for more than four lines, stick to the English sonnet. If you think in terms of a Q & A, or a primary point followed by a secondary point, & you need more than a quatrain, go for the Italian. Pick your rhyme words according to whatever scheme you think will work for you.

Hint: Don't try an Italian sonnet with "orange" at the end of the first line; there aren't enough rhymes for you to make it to the eighth line.
Hint: The ninth line hook, where you move either from the second quatrain to the third or from the octave to the sestet, is crucial, possibily more so than the first & last line. This transition is called a "volta." It's the leap in Robert Bly terms.

Ready for the other half of the battle? You've got to maintain a regular meter in every line of the poem, most commonly in iambic pentameter. That's ten syllables with a kick on the even syllables. It's okay, you can count on your fingers. Readers judge the quality on a sonnet by a combination of elements -- how well you write in meter, how deftly you've crossed the volta, how solidly you close up at the end, how inventive & appropriate your rhymes are.

Those are the best technical set-ups I can give you. Just go with what works for you, & know that it can be hit & miss for a while at first. . .Good luck.