Getting Started on Sonnets

Red rose clusterAlthough prose and poetry are two very different kinds of writing, becoming more proficient in one can help you become more proficient in the other. There are many ways for prose writers to improve their language skills by studying poetry. A good place to start this literary cross-training is the familiar form of the sonnet.

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. Modern poets have loosened this definition, but most beginners will find it easiest to stick with a more traditional version of the form. Traditional sonnets have a rhyme scheme which divides the poem into segments. An Elizabethan or Shakespearean sonnet follows an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme that divides the poem into three quatrains and a couplet; a Petrarchan sonnet, on the other hand, follows an ABBAABBA CDCDCD rhyme scheme which divides the poem into an octave and a sestet.

Even if you don’t have lofty ambitions for the sonnets you compose, writing them is an entertaining exercise that can truly test your abilities as a writer. The combined restraints of the rhyme scheme and the meter force you to choose your ideas and vocabulary very carefully. Many writers find that composing sonnets helps them learn to rearrange sentences in order to make their rhythm work better. This can not only make your ideas┬áconform to the requirements of an Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnet, but also help you get a sense of how your sentences’ cadence helps your reader understand your ideas.

Many prose writers like having the freedom to use whatever words and cadences they please. However, everybody can benefit from learning to work within the strict limits imposed by a traditional sonnet. Using sonnets as a writing exercise can help you improve your vocabulary, be more flexible with your sentence structure, and better understand the natural cadence of your writing.