Revising Poetry: Syntax, Diction, and Play

by Ellen Gwin

How To:


  1. Look at the syntax in your poem– the arrangement of your words and phrases.

Syntax includes much more than just grammar, it helps provide rhythm, structure, and tone in the poem.

Is the meaning of each sentence clear?

This may seem like an obvious mistake to look out for when revising poetry, but it’s actually quite difficult to remain objective sometimes. While the sentence may make sense to you, the writer, it may not make sense to the reader (and we want our poetry read)!

For example:

“I said hello to the man with a dog.”

Am I walking a dog while saying hello to the man or am I saying hello to a man who owns a dog?

When re-reading each sentence/phrase imagine how a complete stranger would interpret it. This does not mean that you have to over-explain (or even explain) your subject matter, your reader doesn’t even have to completely understand what you’re saying: just make sure the impression, tone, or nature of your subject is relayed in a way another reader can connect with.

Poetry is about communicating, so communicate in a way your reader can grasp.

Is the poem in active or passive voice?

Many people hold the notion that passive voice results in inadequate writing. However, this does not always ring true.

Passive voice becomes useful when the writer wants to emphasize the object(s) impacted by the verb. This is useful when writing about victims of violence, famous works of art, geographical locations, etc.

Use passive voice to put relevant information at the forefront.

For example:

Active: The policemen killed George Floyd.

Passive: George Floyd was killed by policemen.

This puts more emphasis on the victim and less attention on the policemen while conveying the same actions.

For example:

If you’re writing a poem about the ocean but need to mention how you traveled to it.

Active: I took an airplane to the ocean.

Passive: The ocean can be reached by airplane.

While passive voice holds a lot of great qualities, so does active voice; writing in active voice makes sentences less wordy and the meaning more direct. Active voice also helps to remove “to be” verbs. Active voice is useful when setting a strong and clear tone for readers.

Here’s an example of a poem written in passive voice & changed to active voice:


Merlot was spilled on my white, lace Easter dress.

My lips stained my grandmother’s antique set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

My copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray has blood on it.

The bushes lost their rose petals too early this spring.


Spilled Merlot on my white, lace Easter dress.

Red lips stained on grandmothers antique tea set.

Green tomatoes ripened too quickly to fry.

Drops of blood landed on my copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Rose petals fell off their bushes too early in the spring.

*Writers should try and stick to active voice for the majority of their sentences

Do the order of the adjectives correlate with the order of the prescribing nouns/verbs?

Word order is important because while one does want to challenge their readers, sorting out nouns & adjectives should not act as one of the challenges.

For Example:

I saw roses, violets, and sunflowers, they were red, purple, and yellow.

Where fulfillment meets serendipity out in the peach orchard of satisfaction and chance

Are there a lot of long sentences or a lot of short sentences?

Like verb voice, the length of a sentence helps set a tone.

Does a pattern exist?

What effect does your sentence length cause?

Is your speaker speaking in quick, short sentences, long, breathy sentences, or drawn out, pensive sentences?

What type of sentences are used? (i.e. declarative interrogative, exclamatory, imperative)

The type of sentence used is another tool for setting the tone of the poem.

For example:

If the tone your speaker is curious or unsure, use interrogative sentences

If the tone is demanding or urgent, use imperative sentences

If you want anger or excitement, use interrogative sentences

If the tone is passionate or even matter-of-fact, use declarative sentences


2. Look at the diction in your poem– word choice and use of words.

Just like syntax, diction helps set the tone of a poem…just in a different way. Diction refers to whether the language in the poem is flowery/figurative language, concise/formal language, comedic/sarcastic language, etc.

Remove all “to be” verbs

To be” verbs, a type of linking verb, include: Is, Am, Are, Was, Were, Be, Being, and Been.

Removing “to be” verbs allows the sentence to become more active and the verbs pack more punch. All writers usually write with “to be” verbs in their initial draft so don’t stress yourself too hard! Also, don’t stress yourself if you find yourself unable to remove every “to be” verb.

1. Remove “to be” verbs that are near verbs with the suffix “-ing.” One can remove “to be” verbs by choosing an action verb instead of linking verb.

For example:

I was picking the flowers that were growing in the sun.

I picked the flowers that grew in the sun.

2. Another method is to show instead of tell

For example:

The journalist is a woman.

The journalist walked into the room with foggy glasses, oblivious to the fact that everyone around glared at her.

3. Change an adjective to a verb

For example:

She was in love with him.

She loved him.

Soon I will write a longer article on “to be” verbs so that is all I will write for now!

What are the effects of words in your poem?

What can you do to support your desired effect? In poetry it’s important to show, not tell, analyzing and changing diction can help illustrate over-explained ideas more clearly and concisely.

Ask yourself why am I choosing these words? How will they be interpreted?

Look at all of the nouns in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

Look at all of the verbs in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

Look at all of the adjectives in the poem. What do they have in common? How are they different? Do the differences create an interesting juxtaposition or a confusing effect? What might you change?

For example:

In a poem written about the color yellow without saying the color I chose the nouns: lemons, sunshine, serendipity, and sunflowers. To correlate the mood with the nouns I chose the adjectives: golden, productive, sour, and persisting. And finally I picked verbs such as filled, grow, sweeten, and bloom.

In a poem written about dangerous-sweets (honey) I chose the nouns: honey, throat, ambrosia, and hive. To correlate the mood with the nouns I chose the adjectives: sweet, contemptuous, ravishing, and bloated. And finally I picked verbs such as drink, swell, escaped, and clogged.



Playing with your poetry is really fun because you don’t actually have to keep the form it morphs into; if you dislike the outcome of your playing you can always change it back!

Playing with your poetry helps generate more ideas about your poem and a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say.

Playing with poetry also holds importance because as writers, once we find what field we excel in, we tend to stick to it because it’s comfortable. For example, I write in prose poetry the majority of the time because I know I am good at this and I have studied prose poetry a lot, however I like to challenge myself and grow by writing in verse as well.

And who knows, maybe you’ll like the new form you put it in!

Easier Ideas:

1. Try out different points of view: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.

2. Move the last line to the first line

3. Read from the last line to the first line

4. Make the poem longer, even if it feels finished

5. Change where you put line or stanza breaks

More interactive ideas:

1. Cut your poem with scissors and move the lines/sentences around

2. Write a response to the poem– “Call and Response”

3. Use a poem from another century as a guide fro re-structuring yours

4. Write a poem in the opposite tone, invoking opposite emotions

5. Change from prose poetry to verse poetry or vice versa

I hope this finds everyone well and happy writing! ~Elle

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