Poetry workshop: the line break

line breaksWhere to break a line can be one of the most perplexing decisions for new poets. Is there a formula? A set of rules? No, not really – the decision-making process simply develops over time and with practice. But there are quite a few guides to help you. One is about line length. A longer line creates a sense of flow and slowness, it tends to be more rhythmic and “calming”, even musical. Whereas short lines create a sense of pace, they are often less rhythmic and sometimes even jerky. Middle-length lines sit somewhere in the middle and tend to call less attention to themselves!

Things to be wary of with line lengths:

* Don’t have a whole bunch of lines with one or two words on each – you lose the impact – save the one word line for when you really want to draw attention to that word

* If you tend to write lots of poems where all the lines are mid-length, try to vary them and do exercises to chop the lines up or lengthen them and judge the effects

* Think about what effect you want to the poem to have overall – do you want it to feel pacey or slow, melodic or frantic?

* If you write rhyming poetry, remember that shorter lines are more likely to lapse into doggerel

* If you are not sure, read the poem out loud and listen for its pace and melody and adjust lines where needed.

The line break is probably one of the most vital elements of a poem. I’ve heard a line break referred to as being equivalent to half a comma – just a short pause, enough for the reader to be aware of. Anything the reader is aware of while reading the poem is important. If you consider that in a 20 line poem, you have 19 line breaks to consider, that makes a difference! Would you have 19 decisions to make over punctuation in a paragraph of prose? Probably not. So where you break your lines can affect the whole poem.

Line breaks do many things – they create anticipation and surprise, they provide small pauses, they can create double meanings, and enjambment (where a line runs into the next) versus end-stopped lines offers variety and interest. A line break might lead a reader swiftly into the next line or help them to pause for a moment and reflect. With this power to almost unconsciously “direct” the reader, it’s worth studying line breaks and thinking about how to use them more effectively.

There are two ways you can do this – one is to study your favourite poems (especially free verse, where the line break decisions are not dictated by form) and think about why the poet might have broken the lines where they did. You can rewrite the poem and put the line breaks in different places – how does this change the poem and the effect of reading it? Then you can do this with your own poems. Try writing a poem that is just a paragraph of text with no line breaks at all, then rewrite the poem half a dozen times, each time putting the line breaks in different places. Which breaks work better? Which ones lift the poem in terms of pacing, rhythm, anticipation and interest? Often poets don’t want to do this kind of work – they just want to write – but experimenting with line breaks should be a key part of your revision process.

Write all the poems you want, but study line breaks and their possibilities and your revisions will improve out of sight!

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