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3 Writing Techniques Nonfiction Authors Can Borrow from Poetry

(Welcome to guest blogger Rita Lewis, my editor extraordinaire!)

It’s spring! It’s what you’ve all been waiting for… National Poetry Month!

I can hear the eyerolling now.

Nonfiction writers who want to change the world may find poetry a bit… irrelevant. Rhyme? Compressed language? Alliteration?

Poetry can be all that—but so much more. It requires serious writing muscle and employs practical techniques that can benefit your nonfiction writing:

  • Using imagination and imagery to draw the reader in
  • Establishing rhythm to pace the reader
  • Creating high-level conceptual connections with figures of speech

Poets do a lot of heavy lifting with these three techniques. There’s no reason you can’t borrow and adapt them to make your writing more compelling and engaging.

If a book is a journey…

To use a figure of speech (ahem), if a book is a journey:

  • Imagery is the travel experience: the view from the car window—PLUS snacks, leather seats, podcast, radio… the complete sensory package.
  • Rhythm is the cadence of the wheels, and the pace and speed of the journey.
  • Figures of speech are off-road shortcuts to your conceptual destination.

Let’s look at what each technique offers the enterprising nonfiction writer.

Imagery—put readers in the picture

Imagery invokes your readers’ senses, drawing them into the story and breathing life into your content. If you make your readers see, feel, hear, taste, and smell, they’re more likely to go along for the ride.

Ride along with this imagery from U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars”:

A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors.

You can hear the fountain and feel the air, and almost see the sound as it travels to your waiting ears.

So when you recount an experience or story, dig into it with sensory details. Instead of writing “the meetings were tense,” you could write, “The meetings were stormy. Fists pounded like thunder on the conference table, making the coffee cups jump, and you could almost smell the fear.”

Much more compelling, right?

Rhythm—mix it up

Rhythm is an intrinsic part of poetry; musical patterns and beats are created with stressed and unstressed syllables. It can be obvious, as in Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”:

I THINK that EYE shall NEH-ver SEE
a POEM as LOVE-ly AS a TREE.

Or it can be subtle. Shakespeare executes a similar rhythm with characteristic elegance:

But, SOFT! what LIGHT through YON-der WIN-dow BREAKS?
(Hint: It’s Juliet, and she is the sun—see Metaphor, below.)

In nonfiction writing, the concept of rhythm is less formal and a bit broader. In addition to syllables, authors use sentence length to create—and break—patterns for the reader’s benefit.

Whether your natural tendency is to write in short, medium, or long sentences, learn to control your sentence length. Shift the mix to longer sentences when you want to cover distance (say, with background material) and throttle back with shorter sentences to slow your readers for key points—or to create an urgent rhythm that propels them forward.

But be judicious. If long sentences follow one another like mile after mile of interstate, you’ll put your readers to sleep. Or if you constantly jolt them with short sentences, they won’t establish enough momentum to get through your book.

Mix it up. Long, medium, short sentences—they all have their place.

Figures of speech—cut to the chase

Figures of speech—or nonliteral uses of language—are versatile tools for nonfiction writers. A figure of speech says a great deal with very few words, sort of the Swiss Army knife of written expression.

Simile uses “like” or “as” to compare two things, as poet Robert Burns did: O my Luve is like a red, red rose. If you’ve ever tried to explain the meaning of a word to someone, you’ve probably said, “It’s like _________.” Simile fills in the blanks for your reader, especially with tricky concepts.

Metaphor compares and simultaneously connects two often-unrelated things without using “like” or “as.” It can be even more powerful than simile.

I used a metaphor at the beginning of this post to compare poetry to strength. Emily Dickinson used one in the title of her poem “’Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers,” comparing hope to a bird. Shakespeare compared Juliet to the rising sun (see Rhythm, above). And in her poem “Metaphors,” Sylvia Plath compares her pregnancy to

An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.

Metaphor uses just a few words to convey what might otherwise take a few paragraphs. It challenges your readers and lights up their neural pathways. If you want someone to grasp something instantly and completely, metaphor is it.

Metaphor can also act as a guiding concept for your book. In her book After the Shock, Clear Sight client Becky Sansbury uses seven parts of a car as a controlling metaphor for the seven parts of her resilience-building model. Maryann Patalano, client and author of The Peephole Effect, uses the eponymous peephole as a metaphor for our limited perception.

Don’t sweat the early drafts

I’ve been illustrating my own points here, using metaphor (comparing a book to a journey), simile (a series of long sentences is like an open highway), rhythm, and imagery. (And yes, I know I can’t “hear” you rolling your eyes—but mixing up different senses is a special form of imagery called synesthesia. Couldn’t resist…)

If your head is swimming at the thought of incorporating all these techniques into your writing, relax. Don’t worry about it in your early drafts. A controlling metaphor may occur to you before you start, or late into your third draft. Rhythm can always be refined, and sensory details added later.

And don’t worry about becoming a poet—just borrow from one.

For the fun of it:

National Poetry Month: Many ways to celebrate poetry during the month of April

National Poetry Writing Month: A writing prompt every day!

Poem-a-Day: Contemporary poems on weekdays; classics on the weekend


When she’s not fixing my prose (EVERYONE needs an editor), Rita Lewis works as a freelance writer and editor. She has a special interest and talent in helping nonprofits and arts organizations write case statements and related communications. 

Not sure how to enrich your writing? How best to present your message? How to get started with a book idea, or how to keep going? Give Clear Sight a call and we’ll discuss your options.

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