How Writing Bad Poetry Made Me a Better Writer

Love it or hate it, instapoetry is the literature buzz of the moment. Whether or not it’s real poetry or a valuable literary asset is an argument for another day, and believe me, plenty of people have made those arguments. No matter what instapoetry is, there’s no denying that it’s popular. Rupi Kaur and her peers have sold millions upon millions of self-published books, and their social media accounts have millions upon millions of followers.

Ever the opportunist, I saw this trend, did a little research, and like so many before me, thought, I could do this better. I have a degree in creative writing and a job in my field, I study words for a living and know how to put them together, I’m a millennial female—I was pretty much perfect for the next big instapoetry account.

So I started one.

I came up with a fake name and a signature style and I set about writing simple, shitty poems that I knew would appeal to the instapoetry crowd. I channeled all my pettiness and cheap encouragement into simple sentences with a lot of line breaks and started posting one a day. I’d write them in huge batches—twelve or thirteen at a time, over the course of maybe an hour—and then upload one during my lunch break with all the relevant hashtags.

But while I was writing these terrible little millennial poems, I found myself wanting to make them a little less terrible. I took everything I knew instapoets did—simple sentences, straightforward thoughts, everyday language—and started applying everything I knew about writing to them. I started to sprinkle in some metaphors and flowery language, I started playing with assonance and consonance and pacing. And I started noticing my real poetry getting better.

Not only that, I noticed my ability to switch voices and tones with ease was improving as I’d go from writing fiction to writing for work to writing instapoetry. It required a laser focus on audience and how to best appeal to them—a very important and often overlooked part of good writing—and the instant gratification of likes and shares helped me to understand what exactly that audience was appreciating and identifying with.

I’m not yet the next big instapoetry sensation, in part because social media networking is exhausting and in part because I just didn’t have the time to keep up posting and tagging a poem a day, but I actually found that I enjoyed the process. And it left me with a few tidbits of writing advice I can share with you.

Write something every day.

You hear this all the time, I’m sure, but I’d like to add to it. It doesn’t matter if what you write is good. It doesn’t even matter what it is. What matters is that you write what you set out to write. There’s something to be said for letting the work surprise you, of course, but so much of writing is working on craft that if you frequently set out to write a poem and end up with a short fantasy story or a personal essay, you’re not going to become a better writer as quickly as you would if you set out to write a poem and ended up writing a poem, even a bad one. Writing is a discipline, and that involves more than just consistently putting words on a page.

Write intentionally.

Know your audience. Research what they like, how they respond, what the average reading level is. Even if you don’t plan on doing anything with whatever you’re writing, intentionally writing to an audience can only strengthen your ability to do that for the project you do plan to put out there. And do this with multiple different forms and genres. Don’t just stick to what you know.

Similarly, use those writing tools you were taught in junior English class. Practice alliteration, switch up your sentence structure, try new combinations of words. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good. A lot of writing is trying things and seeing what works for you. If you stay in the same ruts you’ve always been in, your writing will start to sound stale and boring. Like any muscle, you have to stretch your writing ability to make it better.

Compare yourself to other writers.

I know, I know, this sounds like the most counterintuitive advice ever. Obviously you shouldn’t compare your first draft to Lolita. Don’t beat yourself up for not being amazing. That’s not what I’m saying. But a little healthy competition can be good. My writing improved because I set out to make my instapoetry better than at least half the instapoetry that’s out there. It gave me something to strive for, a reasonable goal to measure myself against.

Comparing your new work to your old work is a decent measure, too, but if you’re not improving, there’s something wrong. Comparing yourself to similar writers at similar stages can serve as that extra push you need to actually get better. If comparing the work you love to other people hits too close to home, try it with a different form of writing. Start a blog and try to make it better than an annoying person’s blog. Join a critique group for the project you started four years ago and haven’t looked at since. Create your own instapoetry account. Whatever you do, giving yourself a tangible goal of improvement will provide a reason to improve that’s not solely self-motivated and thus easy to push off.

Instapoetry isn’t a great art form, in my opinion, and the only reason I got into it was the chance for fame, a stepping stool to get my better work out into the world. But in true artistic fashion, it surprised me. I suppose this only goes to prove that you can learn from anything, even if you go into it thinking you know everything there is to know about it. Let life surprise you. Let art surprise you.