On not spending money (to learn to write poetry)

One of the comments from my previous post about writing workshops has prompted me to say that you don’t need to spend money in order to write.  I’ve sung the praises of workshops on this blog – and I am a fan of them – but don’t kid yourself that you must go to workshops in order to get better at writing.  I know, or have heard of, plenty of successful poets, published by prestigious presses, who’ve never attended a workshop in their lives, although they now sometimes run writing workshops themselves.  In this post, I’ll look at some alternative, minimum or no cost means of developing your writing.


For years, I wrote in isolation, showing my work to no one, although I sometimes sent writing to publishers for consideration and received a sort of feedback in the form of rejection slips.  I started many projects – poetry, prose, scripts, word and image – and abandoned them all.  It wasn’t until I was a student, first at Bournemouth University studying Film and TV Scriptwriting, then at Chichester Uni studying English with Media Studies, and finally at the University of East Anglia studying for an MA in Creative Writing, that I completed pieces of work in order to fulfill the criteria for various CW modules.  Being a student and being given the time and encouragement to write made the difference to me.  However, it’s worth remembering that I had put in years of groundwork.  I might not have benefited from attending university writing courses and workshops if I hadn’t already written a lot.  And I read a lot – although my reading became more focused and extensive at university.

I’m really sorry that successive governments in the UK have made it harder or impossible for mature students like me to return to full-time education to study.  I had all my fees paid and received a small maintenance grant from my local authority when I was an undergraduate, and received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to complete my MA. If I hadn’t been funded, I wouldn’t have returned to full-time education, it’s as simple as that.  So how would I proceed now, if I wanted to take my writing to the next level?

When I returned to writing in 2009/10, after a long spell of not writing (mainly to do with needing to earn an income, caring for children, being depressed – I won’t go into it all again) one of the books that helped my poetry was Peter Sansom’s Writing Poems (published by Bloodaxe).  At that point, I hadn’t written much poetry at all (because I wrote prose and scripts) but I’d been carrying this book around with me for years, ever since it had been recommended to me by my lecturers at Chichester University.  The book includes sections on form, metre, line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme, among many other things, plus there are writing exercises and prompts to try, and recommendations of poets and books (to be fair, this could do with updating unless there’s been a recent re-print, but, even so, there is much to be recommended in this book).  If money is tight, ask your library to order a copy (if they don’t already stock it) or find a copy to borrow.

And, talking of which, ask at your local library for information about writing and reading groups near you.  Sometimes librarians run groups like this themselves or are in touch with relevant local projects.  A few years ago, I offered writing groups free of charge in my local town museum and advertised them at the library – look out for similar offers.  The Community Librarian is the person to ask for.

The internet is awash with good advice and tips for writing.  A particularly good site is  Helena Nelson’s blog which often includes practical advice about what to do with your writing.  Her excellent piece ’32 ways of reviving a rejected poem’ is a case in point.

Look out for free MOOCs – massive open online courses.  The University of Iowa ran ‘How Writers Write Poetry’ which I found helpful.

Something else you could consider doing is joining forces with someone else or a small group to read and comment on each other’s writing.  Even simply reflecting back to the writer what you are understanding as a reader will be helpful and will highlight any discrepancies between a writer’s intentions and a reader’s comprehension (which the writer might or might not choose to take into consideration when re-drafting).

I feel that there will be more to add to this post over time.  You might like to add your own suggestions and recommendations below.  The best advice I’ve ever been given is to keep reading and keep writing.



24 thoughts on “On not spending money (to learn to write poetry)”

  1. I know we aren’t obliged to go to workshops, but they ARE enormous fun and open up our minds to better writing.

    I did all my writing courses online with the Open University, and one at Exeter, as and when I could afford them. My degree was achieved at the age of 72, so age is no barrier!

    I echo your praise of the Sansom book, and can also recomment Stephen Fry’s little book “The Ode Less Travelled”, which is particularly useful as an aide memoire on forms and metre.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I also found How Writers Write Poetry useful; most of the video tutorials are excellent. The Poetry School occasionally offer free open online workshops with their digital poets in residence. These have been ways into new writing, for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Great post Josephine. I particularly like this bit.

    ‘Even simply reflecting back to the writer what you are understanding as a reader will be helpful and will highlight any discrepancies between a writer’s intentions and a reader’s comprehension (which the writer might or might not choose to take into consideration when re-drafting).’

    My wife, Rachel (a non-poet) did this for most of the poems in my first pamphlet and still does when she’s not too tired!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love to have it pointed out that reading is free. Well, not quite. Not if you buy the books. But a little poetry well digested goes a long way. And a number of lovely sites offer us a poem a week. So MUCH fabulous, thought-provoking stuff to read, and hear and wallow in. And then patterns to practise and have fun with. I was a member of the internet writing workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/) for some years. It is free. I learned a huge amount here, mainly from close reading and critiquing of other people’s work. And I acquired good friends, some of whom still act as readers and critters for me when I need them. I don’t think you have to go on courses by any means, though I do think some courses are marvellous and luxurious experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Nell, I agree with everything you’ve said. Thanks for adding the link to the internet writing workshop which I’ve never heard of and which I’m sure some people will find helpful! 🙂


  5. I particularly took to heart your earlier comment about why you do nor currently go to a workshop – because you found yourself writing for it.
    I am currently with a workshop, and I find this also. I remain very wary of them: one or two can be pivotal, a great many not. One or two can be pivotal once or twice… etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Maybe everything in moderation, Michael, or trial and error. I don’t know. Perhaps be honest and true to yourself and don’t throw good money after bad (how many more cliches can I throw in here?!). A certain amount of wariness is wise, but don’t be put off workshops entirely. Sometimes it’s a question of finding even one good reader, right for you. Best wishes with it all! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great advice. I started writing again in 2013 and spent the first year re-learning. I do love workshops but there is a limit to what I can afford, so I am selective. I read an article in 2014 all about the balance between working on your writing and taking relentless numbers of classes.

    If anyone needs FREE writing workshop time, I run an online writing retreat annually, INKSPILL. I would be happy to leave a link with permission, our latest retreat was 24th/25th October, all posts are still active. We were joined by Guest Writers; David Calcutt, Alison May and Daniel Sluman this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Nina, Thanks so much for commenting. You’re exactly right, it is important to keep a balance between working on your writing and taking classes and there are times when there simply is no budget for anything other than life’s essentials. Do please leave a link to INKSPILL (so polite of you to ask – thanks!). Glad that you’re writing again. 🙂


  7. I have an ambivalent relationship with workshops.

    Some I have attended (Jo Bell’s in particular) have been outstanding, but too many have been poor.

    In my experience, in terms of time, a day-long workshop ( 10am-4pm) is the optimum. Half-days (three hours) can work with small numbers of work-shoppers, two hour sessions are invariably a waste of money.

    Drilling down into what is on offer can be half the battle. The best workshop leaders are not necessarily the best poets. The best poets are rarely the best workshop leaders. Speaking to someone beforehand who has been on a workshop led by that leader is invaluable

    Some “name” led workshops, particularly the short ones at festivals, are really self-promotion platforms with a bit of audience participation.

    Yet the best can be very good. Themed events, in situ, where all participants are on location writing about the same thing can be very beneficial. Being taken outside what you might normally write about is a good thing.

    In summary. Be clear about what the workshop entails. Check out the workshop leader for their workshop leading skills- not simply their poetry record. Find out how many participants there will be, whether there will be a break, and how long that break will be- it eats into the session. Generally, the smaller the session numbers the better the creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. My own view, Josephine, is that you cannot write great poetry without reading and hearing it. Fortunately, access to poetry in books and pamphlets has never been easier because of the internet, and proliferation of second hand book stores/charity shops, where discarded poetry books can be picked up for the price of a first class stamp.

        The standard of local Poetry Society Stanza groups can be surprisingly high, they often meet in member’s homes, are inexpensive, and offer help, guidance and constructive feedback to budding poets. Details: http://poetrysociety.org.uk/membership/poetry-society-stanzas/

        Blogs on the internet can vary in quality considerably, however when they are good ( such as yours!) they can be very good. Once you have found one, go to the blog roll index on the left. Invariably people whom you like and find interesting will follow worthwhile blogs. My own has an eclectic blog roll, some of which is more contemporaneous than others! Here are a few which I find helpful and stimulating:
        From my blog roll: https://garylongden.wordpress.com/

        Independent poetry book fairs can be goldmines. Exciting new work is on tap. Toy can speak to the poets. There are often readings, and sometimes taster or free workshops from those seeking to promote themselves.

        And finally, there are numerous spoken word events, normally held in pubs and cafes in informal, supportive, atmospheres. These can be invaluable on two counts. Firstly you are able to hear contemporary writing and speak to the authors. Secondly, you can perform your own work in front of others. If it does not sound right when you speak the words out loud it is due a rewrite whatever the response. Entry is normally nominal (under £5) or free.

        I hope that is of some use to someone!

        Liked by 1 person

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