How to Write a Damn Good Sonnet

Forget the ruffles. Forget the “thee” and “thou”. Kick this form’s ass, 21st century style.

Zach J. Payne
9 min readOct 3, 2019

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Okay, I lied to you in the title. Just a little bit.

This post will, hopefully, give you a crash course on writing a sonnet. But if it’s your first sonnet, it probably won’t be good. And that’s just fine.

The secret to writing a damn good sonnet is simple: keep writing bad ones. And eventually, they’ll stop sucking.

To be fair, that’s how we get better at anything. But with Sonnets, the learning curve is a little bit more pronounced, because our cultural touchstone for the form is a literal poetic genius who lived and wrote over half a millennium ago. We look at our own work and say “This isn’t Shakespeare!” And decide to give up on the prospect.

Screw that. This is the 21st Century, and we will not be held back. I give you permission to write sonnets that look nothing like Shakespeare’s. Or Spenser’s. Or even Millay’s. I’m giving you permission to write bad sonnets.

Before you can learn, you must forget.

To that end, I want you to purge these AP English vocab words from your brain. Just forget about them.

  • Refrain
  • Volta
  • Quatrain
  • Meter
  • Iambic Pentameter

Those words are good words, and important words. And if you keep writing sonnets, you’ll definitely want to learn about them. But right now, they are only going to get in your way. Unless you’re working on a MFA at Columbia, you don’t need those words (or any words like them) in your pocket.

These are Ivy League words. And sure, the day may come when you want to hobnob with the Ivy League types, but we’re not worrying about that now.

What you need to know.

A sonnet is a 14-line poem.

There is typically some kind of organized pattern of rhyming words at the end of each line.

The lines are usually the same length. Meaning they have the same number of syllables.

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