Sonnets might evoke images of romance, clever wordsmiths, and lonely garrets. Writing one may seem like a daunting task. But in fact the very boundaries of the sonnet make it easier to write than free verse, because the rules are so exact. And it’s really not that difficult to write an effective sonnet if you follow a few guidelines. I’m referring here to the two types most commonly written in English: the Elizabethan (also known as the Shakespearean) and the Italian (also known as the Petrarchan) sonnets. I am also assuming that you understand the basic structure of the sonnet, but I am including a few links for clarification.
1. Read sonnets. Read both old and new sonnets. The more you read them the more your brain will start thinking in terms of sonnets, and in terms of iambic pentameter. In addition to Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats, and Edna St. Vincent Millay are good sonnet writers to check out. But many contemporary poets have used and experimented with the traditional sonnet form as well.
2. Before you begin to write a sonnet, write out your thoughts and feelings first in prose. Ask yourself, “What am I really trying to convey in this poem?” Heartfelt expression and authentic writing will trump flowery speech every time.
3. Write in ordinary English. We don’t Middle English. Use the language that comes naturally to you; use clear language. Avoid words like, “thee” and “dost.” Avoid twisting normal sentence structure around just to capture a rhyme.
4. Speaking of rhymes, don’t force them. A rhyme doesn’t have to be an exact match in order for it to be effective. If you need to rhyme the word “alone,” it’s much better to rhyme it with “done” or “soon” rather than trying to make a word like “zone,” “cone” or “drone” fit.
5. Say your lines out loud, counting your feet* as you go. Watch your meter, but again, don’t force it. Even Shakespeare slipped in an occasional extra syllable here and there. If you’ve found the right wording, but with one too many syllables, better to favor the wording over perfect meter.
6. To capitalize or not to capitalize. The first words of the lines of traditional sonnets are capitalized, regardless of whether they begin a new sentence. Whether you choose to follow this traditional rule is up to you. Play around with both methods and see which one feels most comfortable to you.
To illustrate some of my points, I’ve included an example of a poorly written sonnet stanza:
I wrote a note, then on my porch I sat
With futile thoughts of you to embrace truth.
To speak, just something I must do is that.
I think I’ll go sit in a photo booth.
The first line is okay, though it would sound more natural to say, “ I wrote a note, then I sat on my porch.”
The natural structure of the second line, (“To embrace truth with futile thoughts of you”) has been contorted, either to sound sophisticated or to ensure that “truth” was the ending word. It sounds awkward to me, and the contortion doesn’t really add depth or profundity, in my opinion.
In a similar way, the third line has been turned inside out so it can end with a word that rhymes with “sat.” (“To speak, that is just something I must do.”) Instead, one could find another word to rhyme with “sat” or come up with an entirely new set of rhyming words.
The last line doesn’t seem to follow the mood of the first three. It seems to have been put in there just to get something to rhyme with “truth.” Again, I’d suggest looking for a better fit for the word “truth” or starting with a new rhyme altogether.
7. As you know, the word, “embrace” is accented on the second syllable. To use it in the second line above, one would have to say, EM brace to make it fit the meter.
If your meter doesn’t quite fit, or you can’t find the right word, don’t give up. Keep playing with the lines, trying new words and new combinations. Sometimes it helps to put it aside for a couple of days; when you pick it up again you may discover that new word choices will pop into your head.
8. Finally, keep writing sonnets! Your first couple – maybe even your first couple dozen – may not be all that great. You know what? That’s normal. Keep writing them anyway. The more you write them, the more your sonnets will improve.
*In poetry, a “foot” is a collection of a set number of syllables, with specific syllables stressed and unstressed. If you’re new to this idea, don’t worry about memorizing that definition. It’s one of those things that one often knows and uses without even realizing it.
Most traditional sonnets in the English language are written in iambic pentameter. That means there are five “feet” to each line, and each “foot” has the second syllable accented. These “feet” – with their specific accents – dictate the rhythm of the poem. The lines, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” are both written in iambic pentameter, that is, five “feet” to each line and each “foot” accented on the second syllable.