So You Want To Be A Poet? Top 5 Tips

I’m often sent messages from aspiring writers who want advice on the paths to publication, submissions, competitions and editing their work. I love being able to help people grow and develop as writers, so thought it’s about time I compiled this advice into a blog post for you to access at any time.

Remember, I’m still learning too – learning has no endpoint. There are always writers I aspire to and ways I want to improve, and before I even start, I want you to take a step back and take stock of where you are now. Every now and then you can look back and see how far you’ve come; how your work has shifted shape, magnificently and often surprisingly.

It’s a fluid, continuous process. There would be no joy in wishing on a magic lamp and then rolling out of bed the next day as the next William Shakespeare.

Pick up your pen, drop your judgements, pique your curiosity, and enjoy the journey.

Note: None of the following tips involve heavily necking back shots of Jim Beam at a typewriter, going through periods of existential despair, or wearing a ruff.

1. It’s Never Too Late, Nor Too Early, To Start Writing

Let’s just get this one out of the way because let’s face it: ageism in poetry exists. Perhaps you’re overlooked because youth to some means ‘inexperienced’ or ‘shallow’ (as a writer under 30, I’ve frequently had older poets – particularly male poets – attack me for this reason. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been told that I’m only published because I have a Master’s degree, when the truth is, I’d have continued writing whether I’d worked my arse off for a scholarship or not – despite their incorrect assumption that I must be spoilt and that my parents must have paid for it).

On the other other end of the spectrum, perhaps you’re facing this persistent yet ignorant attitude that ‘emerging’ and ‘new’ writer equates to ‘young’. I’m saddened by the amount of times I hear people giving up on their dreams as a writer because they feel they’re ‘too old to start’ or that their age is a barrier when it comes to opportunities for writers. And what about those who have been writing for years, and don’t feel they are being given the same opportunities to have their voices heard? Conversation has recently been on how hard it is to continue as well as start.

In recent years, there’s been a lot to try and challenge this, and we need to keep the conversation going. My only advice for you here is that if the one thing stopping you putting pen to paper is the belief that you’re ‘too young’ or ‘too old’, you’re only letting this misconception silence you.

Stand up, get writing, and make your voice heard. The more we work together to challenge ageism in writing, the more we start smashing open the doors that appear closed off to us.

2. Reading is an Essential Part of Your Practice

How often do you feel guilty about slipping into the pages of a book instead of slogging it out over your laptop and actively writing? How many books have been pushed onto your ‘to-read’ pile out of sheer guilt of feeling unproductive if you allow yourself some time to just read someone else’s work?

Imagine a musician who refused to listen to anyone else’s music. Day after day, they’d pluck away at the same tunes on their guitar with no exposure to different forms of music, experimentation or an understanding of what’s resonating with people today. It might be okay for the first album. But after that? 

They’d be churning out the same melodies, the same themes, time after time until both musician and listeners became tired of the same old tunes. And the same is true of writing. Ever noticed how some writers never deviate from the same old style and are reluctant to try anything new?

Through reading, you are exploring new concepts, new ideas and drawing from an abundant well of inspiration. It can be easy sometimes to think despairingly: but I’ll never write like that! 

However, it’s important that you don’t write like anybody else. Influence is good, copying is not. Envy only proves a massive barrier for your writing.

With every book you read, you’re helping your writing practice. Now go and pick up that book (and for goodness’ sake, don’t get overexcited and drop it in the bath) and indulge a little while in someone else’s words.

3. Submit Your Work to Journals Regularly

Submitting work to journals is terrifying in the beginning. Suddenly those words privately crafted in your notebook are no longer just yours; they’re also on display for the readers, the editors and the judges. You squirm at the thought of someone going through your words with a fine tooth-comb to pick out the flaws – or, worse, taking one look at the first page and feeding it to the dog.

Journal publications, like competitions and awards, are essential for your cover letter when submitting full works to publishers. Editors are rarely likely to even consider anyone who has not built up a sufficient track record of publication; it’s a stamp of approval that your work is of considerable quality.

Not sure of where to start? Here’s a few examples I’d recommend:

I’d also highly recommend keeping an eye on Angela T. Carr’s fantastic monthly updates, which list the publications open for submissions for that month.

Keep track of your submissions in a spreadsheet or Word document, so you can keep tabs on what’s been sent, what the deadlines are, and what the status of that submission is. This is important to avoid simultaneous submissions of the same poem, something a lot of publications advise against.

4. Enter Competitions

You have to be in it to win it. I hear a lot of arguments against the high entry fees, which do of course add up, but in my view if you’re serious about writing you can put aside a little bit of money every now and then to use for the competitions of your choice. If you’re serious about running, then you’ll buy race entries and trainers. If you’re into fishing, then you’ll spend the money on bait and fishing equipment. 

And if you’re into writing, allow yourself a competition entry now and then; a win or a shortlisting may come with monetary prizes. And if it doesn’t, it’ll go a long way on your cover letter to publishers.

Some competitions offer discounted entries for low-income writers (the inaugural Wales Poetry Award is one such competition). Or perhaps someone could pay for an entry somewhere for you instead of another multipack of reindeer socks for Christmas. 

It’s pointless using ‘I’ve got more chance of winning the lottery’ as an example. Mostly because it isn’t true.

Enter what you can afford, and keep note of every longlisting, shortlisting and win you have. It all strengthens your writing profile when it comes to publication.

5. Learn to Value Feedback

Feedback is a big one, and something I’ll be writing about in more depth in future posts. I’m not going to tiptoe around it: opening yourself up to critical feedback feels rubbish. It does. There’s nothing that will make you squirm in your seat more than allowing a writers’ group pick apart your writing, no matter how constructive that feedback is, nor how gently they put it.

As writers, our snap reaction is to think immediately that anything less than ‘Wow, this is perfect! Don’t change it!’ is terrible.

But it’s not. Feedback is your key to development. 

When fellow writers or editors offer feedback, treasure it. Yes, you’ll get an initial sting; we’re human after all. The ego is easily bruised. However, 99% of feedback isn’t done to bring you down, but to lift you up and help you develop into the best version of yourself that you can be. Perhaps it’s a repetitive phrase you hadn’t noticed, but which jars with readers. Perhaps it’s a line that could be constructed a little better with some rearrangement, alternative words or even removing altogether.

Without feedback, we’re working blindly. And please don’t assume that feedback is gospel; if it contradicts something you firmly believe in, comes from a negative place or is clearly ill-advised then it’s yours to take or leave.

Remember, you’re in control here. 

I hope these tips give you a little insight and spur you on to get cracking on your writing projects and to reduce that feeling of overwhelm. Remember, the most successful writers didn’t do it overnight, and certainly they didn’t do it without the same behind-the-scenes struggle; we’re only ever exposed to the highlight reel.

Behind every brilliant book is a writer who might have written and rewritten it dozens of times, felt like giving up, faced criticism or grappled with the barbs of perpetual self-doubt. But the one thing they didn’t do? 

They didn’t give up.

Make your own highlights happen. Pick up your pen and make your voice heard. It starts with you.

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