Poetry Writing Exercises: Using Connotation to Find the Perfect Word
Poetry writing exercises are an excellent way to develop writing skills, especially skills that are essential to writing compelling poetry. Writing exercises can provide us with new perspectives, techniques, and ideas that strengthen and improve poems we’ve written and poems we have yet to write.
Words are the most basic building blocks for writers, and words have meanings. Often, words have multiple meanings or layers of meanings.
Connotation refers to the often subtle nuances that exist within a word’s definition. Consider the words childish and childlike. These words are synonyms — they have the same basic meaning. But childish has a negative connotation and is often used as an insulting way to describe immature behavior, whereas childlike is often used to describe behavior that is innocent or full of awe and wonder. Both words means someone or something is like a child, but childlike implies that’s a good thing while childish indicates it’s a bad thing.
Today we’ll use connotation to unearth the potential of a poem. Using a thesaurus, we’ll find synonyms for key words in the poem, and then examine how the connotations of the synonyms change the poem’s meaning.
To get started, you’ll need a poem that you’ve written or one you’re working on. The exercise will be easier and go a lot faster if you use the poem in electronic format (such as in Microsoft Word), since you’ll need to mark it up and make copies. It’s also helpful to keep drafts and originals separate from working copies.
Here are the steps for this poetry writing exercise:
- Highlight all the adjectives, adverbs, and nouns in the poem.
- Transfer all the adjectives, adverbs, and nouns to a list.
- Look up each word in a thesaurus to find its synonyms. Using an online thesaurus will make this work go quickly and allow you to copy and paste. List the synonyms for each word. You don’t need to list all of the synonyms; pick the ones that strike you as most interesting. Look for synonyms that evoke various shades of meanings or that change the meaning of your original words.
- Now make a copy of your poem (with the highlights) and start replacing words with their synonyms. Try focusing on one line of the poem, replacing words to see how the meaning changes. Then try it with an entire verse. Save the versions you like by copying and pasting them into a new document.
- Finally, take a look at the variations you’ve come up with and form them into a new version of your poem (or maybe several versions).
When you’re done, set the poem and its variations aside for a few days and then come back with fresh eyes to answer the following questions:
- Does swapping words for their synonyms give the poem new meaning? Did you change the meaning or deepen it?
- Did you use any synonyms that retained the original meaning but changed the rhythm, flow, or sound of the poem?
- Did you use any synonyms that had multiple meanings?
- Were you able to improve your poem?
The Perfect Word
As you go through the thesaurus, you’ll soon find that some words have dozens of synonyms while others have only a few. Sometimes all the synonyms are the same in meaning, but other times, the words’ meanings will differ greatly. And you’ll find various shades of meaning that will give your poem a different flavor or emotional undertone.
Hopefully this poetry writing exercise gave you some new tools and techniques for finding the perfect words.
What strategies do you use to find the perfect word? Have you ever stopped to think about a word’s connotations? Do you find poetry writing exercises like this one helpful? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.