How to write a sonnet

How to write a sonnet? Everything you will need is provided below:

  • a correct definition for a sonnet
  • instructions on how to write a sonnet in ten easy steps
  • a detailed analysis of the ten-step writing process

A sonnet is ...

Shakespeare's sonnet beginning 'Devouring Time', written out in gothic script with illustrated border.

... a fourteen-line poem with a regular rhythm which also rhymes. It shows a movement or development in ideas or feelings between the first eight lines and the final six. Often the final six lines conclude with a rhyming couplet (two-liner) about the sonnet’s overall concept or theme.

Sonnets fall into two main types:

• The English sonnet, which is made up of three sections of four lines each followed by one rhyming couplet
• The slightly older Romance or Italian sonnet, which is formed in two sections, of eight lines and six lines respectively

There are other forms. But these two are the usual types.

How to write a sonnet: ten-step method

So, knowing this, if you would like even more details about how to write a sonnet, the following step-by-step method may help.

Further down the page, I analyse each step one at a time with examples of how the writing process can develop.

HOW TO WRITE A SONNET

1. Decide the purpose and audience of the sonnet.
2. Choose a specific topic (not the title, yet).
3. List things you could say about your topic.
4. Find a relationship between the ideas, audience and purpose.
5. Write down a 14-line sequence of statements.
6. Convert the 14 lines into rhyming iambic pentameter (five beats to a line, da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA).
7. Note specific problem areas.
8. Edit the sonnet.
9. Choose a title.
10. When it’s done, let it be.

In-depth analysis of how to write a sonnet, with examples


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 1: purpose and audience

Start by deciding the purpose the sonnet must serve and the audience it’s intended for. Forget for just a moment about how to write the sonnet. Think instead about who's going to read it and what effect you want it to have on them.

EXAMPLE: I've chosen to write a sonnet as a Mother’s Day gift. So the purpose is to make my mum feel a warm glow on Mother's Day. My audience is Mum. (Simple.)

(Note for US readers: I’m British, as you may have noticed already.)

Purpose and audience of your sonnet
So, now is the moment of first truth; the point of your creation's genesis; the superhuman instant, when you set the consequence and nature of your sonnet.

(One is, surely, allowed to be poetic on a page about poetry.)

Perhaps your sonnet is just for you to read. It will still be read by a different you at a different time. What is it that you want to make yourself think, feel or remember when you read it?


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 2: choose a specific topic

Two very handy tips for how to write a sonnet:

(a) specific, definite, limited topics are good, because a sonnet is a short poem.
(b) almost any topic can be made to serve your purpose and audience. Since a sonnet has to show some movement and change anyway, it’s often useful to start in a different place from where you think you might end up.

EXAMPLE: if I decide to write a sonnet only on the topic of ‘my mum’, I’ll end up with a description of her, or a set of memories, or something similar – it will be a motionless poem in that it will simply circle about on the same topic.

But if I try to write a sonnet with more motion in its subject matter, by starting with Mum and then moving on, my sonnet will end up on a topic other than her. I want it to end about her. So I’d rather start with something that isn’t my mum and then I know I can move the subject of the sonnet on to her.

Also, I want to prove a point to you here – that almost anything will do as your starting topic.

I look around the room I’m writing this in and notice my rug, which is an old Persian wool affair in warm, faded red, blue and brown. You can’t get much more specific than one particular rug. So I'm going to show you how to write a sonnet on ‘My Persian rug and ... (it’s got to make my mum feel good and it’s written for her).’

Stay with me. It will all work out.

Choosing a specific topic for your sonnet
You don't have to pick a minutely focused topic at random -- but it will probably help to choose something which is only loosely connected with your more general subject-matter, if it's connected at all. Think of Shakespeare writing about his beloved; his immediate topic is actually how he isn't going to compare her with a summer's day.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 3: find things to say

This stage of learning how to write a sonnet is nothing to do with rhyme or rhythm. You’re just jotting down what you think about the subject and especially any points that you feel might be relevant to your audience and purpose.

EXAMPLE: I need to find things to say about my rug and, ideally, things which might move Mumwards. So, ‘re my Persian rug’:

(a) I love it.
(b) It has an abstract flowery design, with larger patterns like roses in between smaller patterns like daisies.
(c) It’s considerably older than I am and, possibly, about as old as she is.
(d) The man who sold it to me showed me newer carpets too, to prove how the dyes look better after they’ve aged and faded somewhat – it’s true, the colours get softer and brighter.
(e) Wherever I’ve lived, that carpet makes me feel at home.
(f) It’s hand-woven.
(g) It’s Persian.
(h) It’s about five feet by two and a half. I’m running out of things to say now.

Finding things to say for your sonnet
Around eight to twelve ideas should give you enough to get an idea of how to write the sonnet. Less, and you might run out of material; more, and it may be hard to focus. You need just enough ideas that you can start finding some kind of connection between them in the next step.

Don't try to only think of 'good' ideas. Just write them down as they come. You'd be amazed what turns out to be useful.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 4: find a relationship between the elements so far

Imagine how your ideas might link to each other. You want to find some background relationship between (a) the specific topic you’ve chosen and (b) its purpose and audience.

Play around with different ideas and structures and don’t be afraid to discard anything you’re not entirely happy with. It's difficult to write a sonnet which is fake to start with.

EXAMPLE: there are some similarities I could draw out between the rug and my mum: age, gets better with time, love etc. I could start by working out how to write a sonnet to the rug (‘Ode to a Carpet') and then twist it around from the ninth line to be really addressed to Mum ...

Or shall I describe what I like about the rug and then show how I like her even more? ... no, cheesy :P

I could write a sonnet about how rugs are made and then move to an idea of how she has ‘woven’ me through my childhood – that’s a bit forced – I don’t like it. (I am not a rug.)

Many more ideas might be good but I like the first idea, about the similarities. I think I can see how to write a sonnet with a linking concept to do with feeling at home. My mum is welcoming: she talks and listens, offers good food, has a sense of humour, plenty of patience and a talent for making people feel comfortable. My rug does evoke those sorts of ideas for me: warmth, friendliness, goodness, belonging. That’s what I keep it for.

Finding a relationship in your sonnet
This is an important part of how to write a sonnet as it gives the background theme. Now is the time to fish for any divine inspiration that happens to be kicking about. But, if there isn't any, logic will do just as well; direct comparison and contrast are time-honoured devices; or some sort of pun or twist may hold the subjects together. There just has to be some association which you think you can perceive.

When you feel there’s a dim glimmering of a connection there, move on to the next step.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 5: write a sequence of ideas in 14 lines

Write 14 lines, each line of which expresses an idea about roughly what you want to say. (The poem doesn’t have to rhyme or keep to a beat yet.)

EXAMPLE: In showing you how to write a sonnet structure, I’m going to jot down four ideas about the rug for the first four lines (or ‘quatrain’):

My rug goes with me everywhere – wherever I go, I take it. It makes me feel good to look at it with its red, brown and white roses-and-daisies pattern. I like to imagine the person who wove it thinking (in Persian): “Yep, this is a good one!” That was probably about sixty years ago, maybe even a little more: wow.

(Now, in the second quatrain, I'll develop that initial theme by saying more about the colours in the rug:)

Anyway, here it is still, my rug, making my home for me in the here and now. I remember the carpet-seller told me about the dyes they used to use in those days. They were all from nature: indigo, walnuts, madder, with plain cotton for white. He said, the colour from these dyes gets softer and brighter with time.

(Now I've arrived at the ninth line, which is where the ‘volta’ or 'turn' takes place. So I need to shift things around.)

It’s true, you know, and you’re the same, you get better and better as years pass. The more I live, the more I appreciate what makes me feel warm and happy. When I see you again no matter after how long it feels good to be at home with you. Even though I make my own home where my rug is, you’re the real thing.

(That shows a movement from ‘my rug’ to ‘my mum'. Now it needs two more lines to wrap up.)

Everyone should have a Persian rug just to remind them. Everyone has that person they can call home …

(Not so good. First,‘everyone’ is a bland idea. And that ‘Persian’, ‘person’ chime is bothersome. Also, why should everyone have a Persian rug? In Iran, I expect my equivalent would own something different ... aha ... idea ...)

If I were Persian, I’d have a bone-china tea-pot painted with roses and daisies. Something warm and lovely from far away to remind me you’re always close.

(That’s better – awfully sweet, perhaps, but it brings together the ideas so far.)

There we are: fourteen lines on Persian rug and mum. Time for a cup of tea.

Writing a 14-line sequence for your sonnet
The important thing to achieve at this stage is a plan or blueprint which defines the structure of the ideas you'd like to say and the order they appear in. Rhyme and rhythm don't even begin to come into it.

It would be normal to rewrite some lines as you produce this blueprint. The only reason I didn't include all my rewritten lines above is because it would have bored you to tears to read them.

However, it's a mistake to start fiddling with the language or getting self-critical during this stage. Just write the immediate thoughts that come to mind as you contemplate your subject.

Onwards!


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 6: convert the 14 lines to rhyming iambic pentameter

Warning: this is a long section. I've put all the advice at the top and all the detailed examples underneath to make it easier to work with.

This is the most demanding part of learning how to write a sonnet: working up and down through your fourteen lines of raw material to create rhyming iambic pentameter.

Choose your rhyme-scheme now. Not the actual rhyming words, just the pattern of rhymes you want to work with. Remember, English sonnets go ababcdcd efef gg while Italian sonnets often go abbaabba cdecde or abbaabba cdccdc.

You are about to sacrifice some parts of your text, add to other parts, move ideas around and perhaps bend the grammar a little. You might even scrap some sections and start them again. Not for nothing do they talk of ‘poetic licence’. (I should do another page on 'how to re-write a sonnet.)

Rhythm is best felt by saying the lines aloud as naturally as you can, without forcing the words to agree with the rhythm you want. This page is on 'how to write a sonnet' but it might as well be on how to recite one. Try beating in time with your hand or tapping your foot to feel how many beats there are to each line as you say it. Sometimes there are fewer than five, sometimes more, and sometimes they happen jaggedly. You're aiming for five smooth beats in a line.

To test this, say the following out loud:

To feel the rhythmic pulse in every line
It helps to tap your foot, or, with one hand
To count all five beats by decisively knocking upon
A sturdy desk or table built of oak
Which won't collapse if you should strike it hard.

Which line ain't got rhythm? Did you say 'third'? There you go, then.

For finding rhymes, there are all sorts of tricks: writing lists down; running through the letters of the alphabet (aow, bow, cow, dow etc); using a rhyming dictionary. Sometimes rhymes arrive out of nowhere; sometimes you have to search for and bin five before you find one that works.

Then you may find that it helps to think both forwards and backwards. By thinking forwards I mean trying to move from a possible way to express a line to a rhyming word that would convey the right concept in that line. By thinking backwards I mean trying to move from a good possible rhyme to an appropriate line which says the right idea and also which the rhyme will happily sit in.

Treat the lines like jigsaw pieces that you can reshape somewhat. Keep fiddling around with them in different positions until they fall into place with each other.

If the writing process seems to stick during this stage:

• go for a walk, do some physical work, talk to friends, etc
• remind yourself of your audience and purpose
• look again at what you are writing with those two things in mind
• examine your raw material and rephrase what it says
• dig around, find the basic concept of the line or lines, look at that concept clearly and it will help you to let your sonnet develop with new words in new ways.

I’m not too proud to say that a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary may also be helpful.

Ready? Here we go with the more detailed steps and examples.

One quatrain at a time

Start off by writing one of the quatrains or blocks of four lines. I prefer to begin with the first one (lines 1-4), but if you’ve got a good idea already for later in the sonnet, go with it.

First quatrain

EXAMPLE Here is a sample of the thought process involved in working out how to write the first four lines. (Don't worry. This level of detail is only for the first quatrain, to show you the sort of thinking you might go through. Further down, the description is condensed.)

For my Mother’s Day example, I've decided to write an English sonnet. And my first quatrain should work from the following raw material, remember?

My rug goes with me everywhere – wherever I go, I take it.
It makes me feel good to look at it with its red, brown and white roses-and-daisies pattern.
I like to imagine the person who wove it thinking (in Persian): “Yep, this is a good one!”
That was probably about sixty years ago, maybe even a little more: wow.

I need rhymes and rhythm. The first and third lines have to rhyme, and the second and fourth. Then, the lines need five ‘beats’ each, da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA da-DA.

Go/show? Know? Glow? … too/blue? Do? “That’ll do” instead of “Yep, this is a good one”? Could work. ‘Wherever I go, my Persian rug goes too … ‘I imagine its Persian weaver thinking, “That’ll do”.’ Too many beats in the third line, but it has potential ... Leave it for now and try the second and fourth instead.

These lines are packed with words. Let’s see ... I don’t need to say the colours because she knows the rug, and anyway I mention the dyes later; so I’ll cut ‘red, brown and white’. ‘Roses’ and ‘daisies’ are bad for rhyming so they won’t go at the end of the line. “I love its roses-and-daisies design” – too short. “I love its abstract roses-and-daisies design” – workable. So, as that’s a possible second line, the fourth line should rhyme with ‘design’ (and should probably say that the rug was made more than sixty years ago). Dine, fine, whine, incline, resign ...

Maybe I can swap the ‘sixty years’ line and the ‘Persian weaver’ line around … or even combine them ...

Wherever I go, my Persian rug goes too.
I love its abstract roses-and-daisies design.
It’s more than six decades now since it was new,
And its weaver thought, “I’m proud to call this mine.”

This section is almost coming together. It’s rather clumsy and clunky, but it has some sort of form now, so it’s best to move on. It’s a good general rule for how to write a sonnet that when you have got one quatrain together, write another. You can always come back.

Second quatrain:

In the same way, work through your raw material for the second quatrain (group of four lines) until you're reasonably satisfied that it has a rhyme and rhythm that can be worked with.

EXAMPLE: The raw material for the second quatrain in my example is:

Anyway, here it is still, my rug, making my home for me in the here and now.
I remember the carpet-seller told me about the dyes they used to use in those days.
They were all from nature: indigo, walnuts, madder, with plain cotton for white.
He said, the colour from these dyes gets softer and brighter with time.

I spent some time struggling with different unworkable rhymes or unsatisfactory lines. Look at the process:

Now it’s come to me, to make my home
With far-off indigo and madder dyes.

He told me, “Age will make these colours glow
Softer and brighter still with passing time.”

Now it means I'm home wherever I go
With far-off indigo and madder dye.
He told me, “Age will make these colours glow
Softer and brighter as the years go by.”

Now it makes my home wherever I go,
Warm with walnut, indigo and madder dye.
The seller said, “Age makes such colours glow
Softer and brighter as the years go by.”

And that's what I went with. Not exactly Shakespeare, but passable. Keep going; you can always come back.

The ninth-line 'volta' or turn

If, as I hope, you have written your first two stanzas by now, it’s time for the ‘volta’, or turn, in the ninth line.

EXAMPLE: The third quatrain or set of four lines introduces my mum. Remember what we have to work with?

It’s true, you know, and you’re the same, you get better and better as years pass.
The more I live, the more I appreciate what makes me feel warm and happy.
When I see you again no matter after how long it feels so good to be home with you.
Even though I make my own home where my rug is, you’re the real thing.

I started with:

You, too, get better and better as time goes on

Then:

You, too, get better and better; with passing time ...

Then:

You, too, get better and better; with each year,
You help me understand what makes me glad ...

(Don’t like ‘glad’. It’s a bit over-sincere. Too earnest.)

These two lines were sticking, so I left them and went to the third and fourth lines of this quatrain instead:

It’s good to feel I’m home with you right here:
My rug comes with me, but I come home to you.

Which I changed to:

Although my rug still says, ‘My home is here’,
I feel so good being at home with you.

And after a struggle I was left with:

You, too, get better and better; with each year
Ta-tumty-tumty-tumty-tumty tooo
Although my rug declares, ‘My home is here’,
It feels so good to be at home with you.

It just was not happening.

Should inspiration fail to strike

When things aren’t working out, as mentioned above,

• go for a walk, do physical work, talk to people, then come back to it,
• remind yourself of your audience and purpose,
• re-examine the original material to work out what’s most important,
• rephrase and rearrange it if necessary,
• be prepared to sacrifice you’ve done so far

I went back to the raw material, rephrased it more clearly, and found I could ask it as a question:

And you – have you got better, or have I
Better learned to recognise good things?

The rest then fell more easily into place:

And you – have you got better, or have I
Better learned to recognise good things?
What is my rug, except to signify
The warmth and gladness that your welcome brings?

Not perfect – but I’m happy to leave it at that for now.

The final couplet

Write a final couplet to tie the whole poem together, summarise the basic concept, take it a step further or even ask a new question which springs off from what came before. Bear in mind that by the time you have written the first twelve lines in verse form, your final version will have altered from the raw material, and you may need to change the content of the last two lines around somewhat to suit.

EXAMPLE: the raw material for my last two lines was:

If I were Persian, I’d have a bone-china tea-pot painted with roses and daisies.
Something warm and lovely from far away to remind me you’re always close.

There is an awful lot of information in those two lines, and I had to boil it right down. Below is an abbreviation of the thought process:

What is made of china that does not sound as silly as ‘teapot’? And, for that matter, what is a quicker way of saying ‘bone-china’ or ‘roses and daisies’? Fine china is made by Spode, Royal Doulton, Wedgwood ... oh, ‘Wedgwood’ and ‘weaver’ go together nicely ... Wedgwood pot? – no! – Wedgwood cup, set, dish, plate. ‘Plate’ rhymes with ‘appreciate’ which is the right concept but a fiddly word – oh – people eat off plates, of course:

Perhaps my weaver kept a Wedgwood plate
And smiled to think of Mum each time he ate.

Mmmm ... maybe. It’s rather slick, perhaps; almost jokey. But a touch of humour isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It might work.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 7: read through the work so far, noting any problem areas

By now you should have fourteen rhythmic, rhyming lines. It’s time to put everything together and read it all through in one go, trying to look at it objectively, as though someone else was learning how to write a sonnet and you were helping them improve it.

In fact, instead of thinking about how to write a sonnet, you now need to think again about how to read it. It will, again, help to read it out loud. If you're tough, record it and play it back to yourself. (I don't.)

EXAMPLE: I have copied the whole poem as I’ve written it so far with numbered lines, and I have then written comments below as they occurred to me on the read-through.

1 Wherever I go, my Persian rug goes too.
2 I love its abstract roses-and-daisies design.
3 It’s more than six decades now since it was new,*
4 And its weaver thought, “I’m proud to call this mine.”**
5 Now it means my home wherever I go,
6 Warm with walnut, indigo and madder dye.
7 The seller said, “Age makes such colours glow***
8 Softer and brighter as the years go by.”
9 And you – have you got better, or have I
10 Better learned to recognise good things?
11 What is my rug, except to signify****
12 The warmth and gladness that your welcome brings?
13 Perhaps my weaver kept a Wedgwood plate*****
14 And smiled to think of Mum each time he ate.

*Third line – awkward rhythm, too long.
**Fourth line – ‘And’ is too sudden, doesn’t link up with the previous line well, and in fact the whole line is clunky-sounding.
***Line 7 – I don’t like ‘Age’ and ‘glow’ there; they stick out somehow. I think I must have meant ‘grow’. And I’m not sure about the seller’s direct speech. It is too dominant for the tiny walk-on part he plays in this sonnet.
****Line 11 – it sounds really pretentiously philosophical to ask ‘What is my rug, except …’!
*****Line 13 - ‘My weaver’ seems odd.

Reading through your sonnet
It can be hard to see your sonnet for the rhymes by this point. Try to read it through as though you'd never set eyes on it before. Go and do something completely different and utterly absorbing for an hour, then look at the sonnet quickly, before you can recall what you wrote. Or (courage), get someone else to read it back to you. Nothing shows up unexpected faults so definitively and quickly!

However you choose to do it, make sure you are only criticising the physical form, rhythm and fluency of the sonnet now. Anything else is not relevant at this stage. You are noticing superficial flaws, not radically editing the structure and content of the poem.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 8: edit the sonnet to create a final draft

You know how to write a sonnet. You almost have a sonnet. At this point it's easy to get impatient. But it can still help a great deal to put the sonnet aside for a few hours or overnight in order to get a fresh impression of it on re-reading.

Your goal during the editing stage is to trim and shape the sonnet so it flows more smoothly and clearly, less awkwardly, more rhythmically, etc.

EXAMPLE: I altered the first draft to read:

1 Wherever I go, my Persian rug goes too.
2 I love its abstract roses-and-daisies design.
3 More than sixty years ago, brand-new,
4 It made its weaver proud to say, “That’s mine.”
5 Now it makes my home wherever I go,
6 Warm with walnut, indigo and madder dye.
7 The seller showed me how such colours grow
8 Softer and brighter as the years go by.
9 And you – have you got better, or have I
10 Better learned to recognise good things?
11 I like to think my rug could signify
12 The kind of warmth your welcome presence brings.
13 Perhaps that weaver kept a Wedgwood plate
14 And smiled to think of Mum each time he ate.

I hope you see how it's better. It is less clumsy, and lets the idea emerge gently of a comparison between ‘rug’ and ‘Mum’. When it is written out for Mother’s Day it will be even more clear that it’s about and for a mother.

Editing your sonnet
If, after editing, you're not sure which version is better, put the sonnet aside again and do distracting things to take your attention off it. Then go back and look at one of the versions to see what you think of it. (If you look at both at the same time, you can become doubtful again.)

Remember that this stage is not about changing the poem. It's about making the sonnet you have written the best it can be.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 9: choose a title

The title should ideally be a word or phrase that helps to add new meaning or depth to your sonnet.

EXAMPLE: The main similarity I have been trying to draw out between my mum and my rug in the whole of this 'how to write a sonnet' example is that they are both good things which I appreciate more and more as time goes on.

A simple title which doesn’t give the game away before she starts reading the sonnet would be ‘Good Things’. As she reads, she should realise first that the rug is a ‘good thing’ and then also that she is likewise a ‘good thing’ in my eyes.

Finding a title for your sonnet There are very few if any rules for giving titles to sonnets. The sonnet itelf is the thing that expresses itself best. 'Sonnet' is a perfectly acceptable title, therefore. (To be followed, I would hope, by 'Sonnet II', 'Sonnet III' and 'Great-Grandson of Sonnet'.) Nevertheless, an expressive title adds another dimension and can even alter or enhance the whole meaning of the poem.


How to Write a Sonnet, Step 10: let it be

Final stage: be happy with what you have written – for this time, anyway.

My example is not exactly ground-breaking poetry. However, it does show in detail how to write a sonnet, and it will add a little more warmth and affection to the world - which is more than can be said for a lot of ground-breaking poetry ;-)

Based on my experience with helping others learn how to write a sonnet, you may still be looking at your own creation and thinking, ‘I’m not sure it’s good enough.’

It might be helpful to ask yourself: ‘Good enough for what?’ Does your sonnet have to set the world alight, inspire a new film by James Cameron, be recognised and hailed as the masterpiece of an emergent literary genius? Probably not yet. If it does, you shouldn’t have kept reading this far down the page ...

You know how to write a sonnet that’s good enough for the task at hand. Keep writing that sonnet! You’ll be gratified to find that, like the colours in a Persian rug, your poetry will keep getting better and better with time.

How to Write a Sonnet: The finished result

Good Things

Wherever I go, my Persian rug goes too.
I love its abstract roses-and-daisies design.
More than sixty years ago, brand-new,
It made its weaver proud to say, “That’s mine.”
Now it makes my home wherever I go,
Warm with walnut, indigo and madder dye.
The seller showed me how such colours grow
Softer and brighter as the years go by.
And you – have you got better, or have I
Better learned to recognise good things?
I like to think my rug could signify
The kind of warmth your welcome presence brings.
Perhaps that weaver kept a Wedgwood plate
And smiled to think of Mum each time he ate.


I hope you now feel that you know how to write a sonnet. Congratulations on following through this far!

I hope too that you now have one or more of your own sonnets waiting to be transformed into visual art. If you would now like to know how to write a sonnet out in calligraphy, like the gothic example at the top of the page, you might want to refer to other pages on this site:

How to write gothic calligraphy

How to write italic calligraphy



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