Fast fact: Poetry doesn’t pay the bills. But you probably already know that. However, many poets who work as professional writers (e.g., technical writing) will tell you how their poetry training still comes in handy. Even as a student, I’ve noticed how poetry has improved my professional writing skills in these ways:
Attention to Detail
Poetry, like any form of creative writing, tells much of its story through detail. The power of Tom Andrews’s “At Burt Lake” doesn’t come from its musing but from its careful noting of the way the stars “blister” and “chip” the lake or the fact that it’s a sycamore tree, not just a tree. Without giving me a paragraph about the smell of milfoil or what time of year it is, Andrews presents a scene before his readers, his sharp detail capturing all we need to hear. Noticing the little things that present a scene can tighten your own writing (even if you’re writing just about manuals).
When you’re always writing for the Internet, you have to spit out content quickly on a regular basis. However, this can lead to sloppy revision very quickly, and as any poet knows, good work does not come instantly. Even after 15 drafts of one poem, it may not be very good. And even multiple drafts won’t always help when they’re compressed into a tiny period. While professional writers do not always have the luxury of writing several full drafts, they can at least remember the value of revision from their poetry drafts.
One of my creative writing teachers once gave us a sheet that she called the cliché graveyard. On it were phrases like “out of the blue,” “red as a rose,” “faster than a speeding bullet,” “in the nick of time,” etc. We all laughed, aware of our guilt. While professional writing usually doesn’t call for creating fresh metaphors, knowing when language feels stale is a crucial skill for professional writers as well. Most types of writing benefit from varied diction, even replacing words like walked with strode or paced. It’s easy to feel how paced is much less bland than walked. These subtle changes lift your writing and give it more originality.
Part of the charm of poetry is its ability to succinctly say something very complicated in only a few lines. For example, check out Robert Bly’s “Watering the Horse”:
How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse’s mane!
I am always amazed by this poem. Bly captures ambition’s effect on his attention (and indeed, his life) in four lines, a total of 29 words. Now that’s the sort of brevity many writers want!
How has poetry has helped you in your own professional writing?