Sonnet Building Step 4: “Muscle Sculpting”

[Just here for the prose talk? Click here to skip down.]

Hello sonneteers!

How are you guys? Doing okay? Where is everybody in the process? Judging from both the crickets in the comments and a few of you that I’ve spoken to personally, I’m sensing some anxiety, hesitation, and general malaise. That’s no good!

I’d planned on today’s post being about editing and revising on your own, so I will hit on that below, but first I’d like to get a read on your individual processes and how I can help. If you’d like to contact me privately, you can email me at and I’ll do my best to help. Others likely have the same question, though, so feel free to ask in the comments. And on top of that, I thought I’d take a look at some of the various things that might be giving you trouble, and offer some possible solutions in advance. Here we go.

You’re afraid your sonnet will suck.

Okay, I get this. And here’s the truth: it might suck. (What? It’s true! There are a lot of really crappy sonnets out there.) But the answer to that is…. So what? Who gives a flip if it sucks? Not me. And you shouldn’t, either. No one has to read it if you aren’t happy in the end. And to very loosely paraphrase Alfred Lord Tennyson: It is better to have tried and failed than to never try at all.

In other words, take a risk. We can’t broaden ourselves or our abilities unless we’re willing to try new things and risk failure.

You’re afraid you’re doing it wrong.

But that’s an easy one because… there is no way to do it wrong! I once wrote a sonnet in trochaic tetrameter, and I absolutely love it! You can write sonnets in blank verse (meaning there is no rhyme), break meter, change the line lengths, and even change the rhyme scheme. And don’t count on getting one of these accepted to a traditional sonnet contest, but if you want to, you can even delete entire lines or stanzas!

My point here is that you don’t need to be aiming for a “perfect” sonnet. What you might aim for instead is a sonnet that you can make your own. Don’t like your opening stanza but can’t figure out how to fix it? Cut it. Need a triplet instead of a couplet at the end? Add it. Love your concept but hate your rhyme? Try turning it into blank verse, free verse, or even a prose poem. Always remember this: the form works for you; you don’t work for the form.

This isn’t fun anymore.

Okay, there are two likely sources for this problem. 1) You feel like you’re doing homework, and if you don’t have time that week, you feel like I’ll be mad at you. Solution: That’s just not true. Please don’t feel guilty or like you need to apologize if you get behind the weekly post. This is for you all, remember? Just do it when you can.

Or… 2) You chose subject matter about as interesting as Hugh Heffner’s insoles. (I don’t know.) Solution: Start over, using an idea that makes you excited.

You’re intimidated by other sonnets you’ve read.

This is just human nature. We naturally compare ourselves to others. But in this case, that does no good. Once you’ve written a dozen sonnets and gotten some published, etc., maybe then comparison can have value. But now? Knock it off. You don’t need to compete. This is just for you.

You’re embarrassed by what you have so far.

Again: no one has to read this but you.

You can’t come up with your ending.

The cause of this problem is likely rooted in your initial DNA. Remember? If you really can’t find a closing, try brainstorming new ideas. Alternatively, try a softer couplet. I know I stressed the punch-line, but there are subtle versions of that, too.

You can’t come up with your beginning.

So you came up with your ending first, like I suggested. The problem now is that you can’t figure out how to open it! Solution: ask yourself questions. Who? When? Where? Why? How? What? If you start answering these, you’ll find details to set up your close pretty quickly.

You’re getting all tripped up on meter.

This is where the fast draft comes in handy. Don’t worry about meter right now; just write the content. You can go back with your rhymer and thesaurus later to help smooth out the meter.

And for those of you who aren’t having those problems, let’s move right along with Step 4: Edit and Revise On Your Own (aka “Muscle Sculpting”). *This is a great time for you to catch up if you stalled at step 3!

You know how I was a meanie and wouldn’t let you edit as you drafted? Now’s your chance to address those parts that you knew were crap even as you wrote them.

The best way to self-edit is to release your natural defensiveness. Maybe a mantra will help, like, “The need to make a change doesn’t mean I’ve failed.” Now read your poem, and as you read, put a mark next to every word or phrase or line that feels off. Don’t overanalyze why just yet. Just allow yourself to read and be honest: what needs work?

Then you can go in try to polish things up. This is where your thesaurus and rhymer come in handy. Give yourself time, and try out different things. Think of it as a slow-motion puzzle. If you get frustrated, take a break.

And if you find yourself feeling a lot of anxiety about changing a line, try pasting it to the bottom of the page. That always helps me. That way if I can’t come up with something better, I always have the old version to fall back on. Experimenting is a lot easier if you have a safety net.

Posts in the Sonnet Building series:

Step 1: “Gathering DNA”

Step 2: “Structuring a Skeleton”

Step 3: “Filling out the Flesh”

Step 4: “Muscle Sculpting”

Step 5: “Final Dress”

* * *

Prosers: Today’s topic is short one: doing everything you can on your own before you ask for outside help. I think it’s a must. What do you think?

Sonneteers: This week’s task is to play with your poem. Revise, edit, tweak, and mess with it until you feel relatively satisfied that you’ve done all you can on your own.

And by all means, if you need help with any step in the process – ask!

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  • -j-

    I’m behind. But still working on it every week, and coming back here to make sure I’m doing it right all the time. I decided not to stress about the time. I fit sonnet work into weird places, like waiting for stuff to cook, or the 15 minutes before I have to pick up The Boy.

    Two things. The rhythm part is not natural for me. For instance, I was counting out rhythms for Dillon, frustrated by my inability to figure out how to make this thought sonnet-y, and he said, “You can count ‘wild’ as two syllables instead of one and the line is almost done.” He was right. (Plus, his wording, that I COULD – but didn’t have to – was empowering.)

    And yeah, I know we don’t have to totally stick to the rules, and I won’t (I can tell), but what’s the fun of trying this if I don’t at least attempt to.

    Second, I love how different composing this sonnet is from all the other creative, writerly stuff I do. It’s absolutely a break for me. My mind switches gears, and more than once, while working on the sonnet, my mind came up with a solution on a piece I’d been struggling with. So cool.

    So, I’m not sure how soon I’ll be done and running through your metaphorical front door waving my poem like a report card… but doing this with you has had more benefits than I anticipated. 🙂

    • Thanks for the update! I like hearing how you’re doing and which parts you like and struggle with. And Dillon is definitely right about “wild.”

      I’m so glad the sonnet is turning out to be a worthwhile experience for you! That makes me feel really good. =) Good luck finishing it up!