​Here goes. These are points that ‘snag’ my reading because of the frequency with which they occur. Of course, a poem could contain any of these features and still succeed in spite of them.

1. Breaking a line on a hyphen. (I thought this went out decades ago, but it is apparently back with a vengeance. I have seen more hyphen-broken lines this July than you could shake a stick at.)

The name of the shop shone bright in red-
gold lettering.

2. Breaking the line mid phrase. (Ok, it can be done. BUT a great many people are doing this for no apparent reason other than to create a kind of contemporary ‘poem’ feel. Lots of breaks on ‘and’ and ‘the’ and prepositions like ‘of’ and ‘to’. Are the lines even interesting without the line breaks?)

The clock struck
one and the mouse ran
down. Why are the
two of them so
predictable and
what is the point of
the mouse?

3. Breaking a phrase across a line or stanza to re-enact some action also taking place. (Although this may have some justification, it can be less than subtle.)

The magpie clacked and flapped
in alarm. A squirrel shot down

the tree and into the bushes.

4. Forming a stanza round a sequence of leaning verbs, then ending with a discrete sentence with subjectless verb,

I sorted out the washing, put the whites together,
jumbled the dark clothes into a pile,
scrutinised the options on the washing machine,
selected 13 for Mixed Load, threw in two laundry capsules,
shut the door, pressed START.
Poured myself a mug of sweet strong coffee.

5. Using a line break to substitute for a comma. I have written about this before here.This is actually part of a bigger issue, which might be headed ‘how to punctuate your poems’. A number of prize-winning poets in recent years have published poems with no punctuation at all. Some use gaps between words instead. Others use punctuation here and there in their own coded system. Let them do what they do. But unless you are very sure and consistent in your own system, try punctuating poems in the same way as prose. It will help the reader understand what you mean.

6. The word ‘then’ used as turning point in the action. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes ‘Then’, then ‘then’, then ‘finally’.

7. Frequency of certain words (sorry!) : heft and shard; shard and heft, also weft and filigree.

8. Too many adjectives.This is easy to check in your own work. If you have an adjective (or two, or three) accompanying nearly every noun, you have a problem – unless you’re deliberately going for over-kill. Make nouns and verbs work harder, even if they don’t want to. 

9. Certain kinds of ‘trendy’ titles, leading into list poems eg ‘Reasons for having a secret name’ ‘What I learned from my sister before she died’ A lot of first line titles too, some working better than others.

10. Titles that use the best phrase in the poem and therefore steal the thunder later.

11. Sentences that go on a very long time and the reader gets lost on the way to a full stop and there are semi-colons; often several of them; and line breaks that make it even more difficult: sometimes the sentence even lasts the whole length of the poem, which is not inconsiderable and may include gaps and jumpy phrases that leap off to the right and then back to the left, and when you get to the end (IF you get to the end) you have forgotten what you thought the poem was about. 

12. Chunking stanzas into even sizes.Three-line stanzas. Quatrains. A lot of couplets. Lines about the same length to make a nice rectangle or square. This often leads to significant cross-stanza enjambment because the stanzas (verses) are not verse paragraphs so much as divisions forced on the words by rule of two, or three, or four. The reader starts to wonder about the relationship between the form of the poem and its subject. Is there one? 

13. How fragments. They work like this:

She thinks of him, leaning against the gatepost
in the evening sunlight. How his brows furrowed.
How he would clench his jaw. 

14. Rhyming for closure at the end, but not anywhere else.

15. Formatting complex layouts for an A4 page.This can include elaborate spacing or verbal collage, including some lines justified left and some right to the right of A4. 

16. Formatting prose poems in a blocks that run the full width of an A4 page with narrow margins. Length of line is a key factor in readability.

17. ‘Yet’ or ‘And yet’ towards the end of the poem

18. ‘For’ used instead of ‘because’. (Some poets will defend this to the death.)

19. Colons used to control the reader into seeing that the next bit extends the previous bit, although this is self-evident.

20. Frequent semi-colons. (When I was at school Mrs Clarke said we were not to use more than one per page. How things have changed!)

21. References to Edward Hopper (and especially ‘Nighthawks’) appear more often than any other painter, film-maker or author.

22. Double spaced poems.I think this may be because people follow the default of Microsoft Word. When you hit the ‘return’ key, Word thinks you want to start a new paragraph. So you need to change the default setting, or learn how to do ‘soft returns’ (hold the ‘shift’ key at the same time as ‘return’). 

23. Capitals at start of every line, or irregularly (nothing to do with starting a sentence). Obviously there is a choice. There are still poets who choose to have a capital letter for the first word in every line. It is retro, but you can choose to be retro. But there are also poets whose Microsoft Word program defaults to a capital letter each time they hit the Return key (see point above). If this is the case, they need to change the default setting. 

24. Poems structured round a set of instructions, a list of imperatives to the reader. eg ‘How to kill your bee orchid’:

Water the plant daily. Talk to it.
Polish the leaves with a cloth soaked in honey.
Play music to your orchid. Touch its leaves one by one
with the tip of your tongue. Take it outside at night
when there is a full moon
and leave it in the middle of the lawn.
Take it in the bath.

25. ‘And I think ….’ or ‘And I remember’, or ‘Do you remember?’ Memory is hugely important in poems, and the question ‘Do you remember…?’ is a great trigger. But once it has fired the poem onto the page, remove the trigger.

26. Mingling the narrative perspective: I, you, we. I‘ll try to illustrate that.

Taking my coffee out in the sunshine,
I tripped over a yellow watering-can. I cried out
in pain, as you do. But no-one came. You know
how it feels to be ignored, you know
how the pain stabs worse when you’re alone.
We’re never more alone than when
in pain. Do you remember, last year,
when we were in Spain and I fell?
You were the one with the pina colada
and cold compress. 

27. The poet knows what is going on but.… There is a context. The poet knows the context and thinks it’s obvious what’s happening. In fact, the poet thinks it’s obvious enough to develop the idea using surreal metaphors or elaborate similes. But the reader is confused, and feeling increasingly anxious in case it IS all obvious and she just can’t see it….

28. A lot of ‘as’ sentences. I hate ‘as’. It can mean three things: while, because and like. That means it could be used three times in one poem meaning three different things. It is often at the start of a line, and often followed by ‘I’ (‘… as I write as on the page, as if I were a an Aztec, as indeed, on Sundays, I am.’) 

29. Ellipsis. Dots. Very occasionally there is a case for them. But if they are there for vagueness, that’s not good. Vagueness in poetry is not good.

30. A line or lines (often near the beginning) where the reader has good reason to read it wrong. There’s a word in a key position that could be a noun or a verb (and sometimes even an adjective) and the reader reads the wrong function and then never quite recovers, even after going back to check how it should have been read. The poet is not aware of this because the poet knows how the word is intended (possibly the only person to know in some cases). Here’s an example (where ‘fingers’ is likely to be read as a noun but needs to be a verb):

This night is bitter for the head and the cold fingers
the soul as it withers and shrinks. 

A last thought. I like to see how the complex-sentence poets construct sentences in their covering letters. Some of them write beautifully there – not a word out of place, and an engaging, personal tone. But when that same writer puts on poem-mode, suddenly the sentences are formed in a different way – far more difficult to follow, and the difficulty compounded by line (and stanza) breaks. I wonder whether we share a subconscious instinct that poems should be complex and a little ‘difficult’. Otherwise, they might not be saying anything of value.

A good friend sent me an antidote to this idea – a bit of Seamus Heaney. One can write a stunning poem in straightforward sentences. Here is a bit from ‘Clearances‘ to prove it (even the punctuation is entirely unremarkable).

Polished linoleum shone there. Brass taps shone.
The china cups were very white and big –
An unchipped set with sugar bowl and jug.
The kettle whistled. Sandwich and tea scone
Were present and correct. In case it run,
The butter must be kept out of the sun.
And don’t be dropping crumbs. Don’t tilt your chair.
Don’t reach. Don’t point. Don’t make noise when you stir.



 Poems don’t have to have a Privacy Policy. But websites do. Or any organisation that collects personal data that might be used for nefarious purposes.

And we do worry about personal data. We worry about our phone numbers, and our dates of birth, our bank accounts and our passport numbers. We worry while giving them to all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes.

And now some of us suddenly worry about a new set of capital letters: GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation.

Health Warning: the rest of this blog is quite dry. You could just skip to the poem at the end if you’re not feeling strong. Or go for a nice walk.

The GDPR is a piece of European legislation (please don’t mention Brexit) designed to protect consumers Europe-wide. It gives more rights to the individual and more obligations to organisations holding personal data.

The GDPR is, to be precise, Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing or personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC.

In the UK, matters of data protection, including this one safe-guarding ‘natural persons’, are looked after by the ICO, the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is the government-appointed body that recently carried out a much publicised investigation into Cambridge Analytica.

Innumerable worthy, smaller, not-for-profit organisations (like HappenStance Press) have also had to think hard about GDPR, because they too are subject to the new regulation, and need to ensure they’re doing things properly.

Which is why everyone who uses email will have had multiple emails recently asking them to re-subscribe to X, Y or Z.

The idea is that we shouldn’t be receiving marketing or sales emails unless we have expressly asked for them. (The word ‘consent’is now the lynch pin.)

After May 25 (next week), every organisation that holds your contact details, and uses them, should have asked your permission explicitly first. They should observe the key principles of article 5 of the GDPR.

Some organisations who hold your contact details have little idea whether they originally asked your consent or not (contact addresses were sometimes shared or purchased in the past) and in any case they want to make double sure.

So they are all asking us to confirm that we want to stay on list A, B or C. (And they are nervous, because the ICO can fine people for not doing things properly.)

The advised consent procedure for mail-shots is called ‘positive opt-in’ and it works as follows. You go to a website (like this one) and enter your details into a box to be added to a contact list. But you’re not actually on that list until you reply to an email which invites you to confirm. When you confirm, this is proof of ‘consent’, i.e. proof you really really mean it. At least, you really meant it at that moment. Ease of unsubscribing is also important.

So on this very blog page, you will see, in red, instructions on how to subscribe to receive future blog notifications. If you enter your name and email address in the relevant box and click, you will be advised to look out for an email to confirm. 

You look out for the email. You open it. You click again (life is all clicking these days). Now you have consented. Hurray!

Oh but I haven’t mentioned the bit about confirming that you’re not a robot, which is straightforward so long as you can see. Issues such as these are raised by Giles Turnbull, on his blog. Accessibility is a key issue here, and one that is not always top of the agenda when it comes to legislation.

I understand why people may be uneasy about registering their names, addresses and emails on this website when they purchase books. Why should they trust a little press with a happy-go-lucky name like ‘HappenStance‘? The information seems to be disappearing into a medium that nobody quite understands, at the same time as we read alarming stories about hackers and alien intelligence. Well, hackers anyway.

It may not help that we promise to keep the information safe, although from now on, HappenStancecustomers can read the Privacy Policy, which I put together this week when I could have been writing a poem. But will it reassure?

There is a good alternative to buying things online. It’s called a shop. People can still order books from bookshops without revealing their full personal details. Bookshops are good places, especially indies like The Lighthousein Edinburgh. A bookshop doesn’t need personal data. Oh, wait – they probably will require at least a name and phone number, unless the book is held in store. But customers can theoretically use a false name, enter the shop disguised as a gorilla, and pay in cash – while cash still exists.

Sigh. Yes, basically, it’s all risky.

But the GDPR is designed to protect us. Or at least make organisations state precisely what personal information they collect from us, why they collect it, and what they use it for, before we sign up. It could be worse.

Privacy Policy & Consent

This poem will not collect your data
to contact you a few weeks later
and call you back.

The lyric stands alone, defiant,
entirely GPDR compliant,
in white and black.

Impervious, then, to consternation
or European legislation
or Union Jack,

it here extends its own address,
which may be shared in times of stress—
no fear of flak.

On Writing The Book

So I’m half-way through How (Not) To Get Your Poetry Published, the new, enlarged, revised, authorised, homogenised edition containing the Answer To It All.

What gets me about self-help books is the knowing tone. So I’m trying my best not to write in a knowing tone. But the knowing tone keeps getting in.

Poetry publishing has obsessed me now for over a decade. I know some things about it, but I still don’t want a knowing tone. I want a questioning tone, a raise-one-eyebrow tone, at the same time as some of useful facts and some ideas. A bit of ‘you need to know this’ and a bit of ‘have you thought about that?’

And it’s got to be funny some of the time. If you don’t have a sense of humour when it comes to getting stuff published, it can only end in tears. Or as Roberto Calasso says in The Art of the Publisher: ‘. . . if our life as a publisher fails to offer sufficient opportunities for laughter, this means it’s just not serious enough.’ This applies just as much to poets.

But I’m finding I can’t bear too many pages about how to prepare, how to make your approach, how to develop a strategy etc. It gets so far away from the joy of writing. Periodically I have to leap out of this book and go and look at something real, like a blob of mud in the back garden or the light reflected in the lenses of my glasses.

So I’m working some reading/writing stimuli into this book – optional, of course – to cheer people up as they go through. If anybody reads it, that is.

If you are reading this now and you think you might, one day, read this book titled How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published) and there’s something you’d particularly like covered in this hypothetical book, could you let me know what it is? You can use the comments section at the bottom of this page or the contact box on the website if your idea’s more private.

What have I got so far? Good question.

Apart from the enjoyable bits (the reading/writing pages) and the case studies (what not to do), this is what I have, but not in this order. (One of the points below is a lie: it’s not in the book at all.)

— motivation (fourteen reasons why)

— understanding the publishing process

— thinking like a publisher (but try not to on a Sunday, it’s very wearing)

— researching a publisher

— choosing the right publisher for you (if there is one!)

— how to make your approach (swinging the odds in your favour)

— thinking outside the box

— DIY publishing

— how people get books published, other people!

— how to gauge whether you’re ready

— track record in magazines

— why you have to use the web

— how to win the National Poetry Competition

— social networking for poets

— thinking about poems in sets: what makes a collection work?

— how to build a readership

Ideas welcome please as soon as you can manage them. But no knowing tones, towing groans or flowing moans, right? Things are bad enough already in the head of Nell.

The graphic shows a little girl or small female. It's a cartoon depiction. She could be little red riding hood. Her mouth is open wide with all her teeth showing and a bird on strings seems to be escaping from it. Three butterflies, also on strings, seem to be escaping from her back. Her arms are stretched out for help and her feet are on backwards.

Ten Reasons for NOT reading today’s HappenStance blog

1. Because you could read Fiona Moore’s blog instead.

2. Because I considered the topic of rejection but here’s Jeff Shotts on The Art of Rejection and he’s done it better.

3. Because you’ve read enough blogs for one day.

4. Because these sort of lists are hardly original.

5. (You don’t need to read the rest of my reasons. Anyway, there are only ten because the entries that list ‘ten of’ get more hits

6. which is why I’m thinking of stopping at five)

7. or maybe extending it to six in order to say I’m rewriting How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published and I’m up to the chapter headed ‘Should poets blog’ which ends ‘or you could go and write a poem instead’. (This book is killing me.)

8. Because you could go and write a poem instead.

9. Because there are only nine. Pay some attention to the nine muses, especially Euterpe. I’m simply an interruption.


Every time it’s the same. You look forward to the rest — the bit where all the shops shut, the dark draws in and you can down tools. And then it starts.

It’s hard work. It’s harder work than working.

Every time it’s the same. You look forward to the rest — the bit where all the shops shut, the dark draws in and you can down tools. And then it starts.

It’s hard work. It’s harder work than working.

And in between, people fall out, it freezes, it thaws, pipes burst, it rains, your car breaks down, the bank is shut when you thought it was open, your bank balance is imbalanced and half your Christmas cards are late and then tumble back NO LONGER AT THIS ADDRESS.

You do a fair bit of laughing, an unfair bit of eating and drinking. You pile up the books you are about to read during your ‘holiday’, though you don’t actually have time to read any of them. Or maybe just one.

And then suddenly it’s all OVER and you’re shattered. You need to sleep for a week, not rampage into 2011.

Enough of the moaning. The elevenses have begun.

Points to note:

  • HSWF Mentoring Scheme: From this month, HappenStance is working with Writers Forum — a mentoring scheme which hopefully will encourage good entries to WF monthly poetry competitions and perhaps some increased sales for HappenStance at the same time. For ‘new’ poets, I think this scheme is well worth looking at.
  • The William Soutar Writing Prize is open for poetry this year. Entry is absolutely free. You can send in up to two poems and the first prize is an Arvon Week. The second is a hundred quid. There is also a local poet prize for people resident in Perth and Kinross. Closing date February 14th. What are you waiting for?

This year’s William Soutar judge is . . . er . . . Helena Nelson. So if you should be reading this and happen to be a HappenStance poet already, please don’t enter because it might look like corruption, even though judging is anonymous. But do encourage everyone else you know to enter. Unless there are 5,000 entries, I will be reading them all.

Full information and entry form can be found on the William Soutar website. If you don’t know anything about William Soutar, now’s your chance — he is — or was — remarkable.

Happy New Work! May your poems always grow shorter . . .


Plot and Counterplot, my own second collection, is in the HappenStance shop. You can buy it from here via PayPal, or by post, or go to the Shoestring Press website and purchase using their downloadable form. One of the poems inside is also available as a PoemCard.

Plot and Counterplot, my own second collection, is in the HappenStance shop. You can buy it from here via PayPal, or by post, or go to the Shoestring Press website and purchase using their downloadable form. One of the poems inside is also available as a PoemCard.

The launch of this Shoestring Press volume is at the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday 20th November, 3.00 for 3.30. John Lucas, Shoestring Publisher, will be there, and he’ll also be doing the Scottish launch of two books of his own, both published by Five Leaves.

If you’re in Edinburgh, do come. Not only will Ross Bradshaw (Five Leaves Publisher) be there in person, but it’s not all poetry. One of John’s books is Next Year Will Be Better, A Memoir of Life in the Fifties. So if you’re old enough to remember life back then, or even if you’re not . . .