How to write a poem inspired by one word

To write a poem starting with a single word is an entertaining challenge that exercises our imagination. Here’s how to help young poets (or adult poets) get started.

Let’s say the word is time.
Think it over for a few minutes but don’t waste a lot of “time” doing it. Do the quick stuff first. What does time make you think of?

Here are 6 steps you can take.

1 Make a list of the first things that come to mind

Telling time
Losing time
Time out
Lunch time
A good time
A sad time
A funny time
Once upon a time
Hard times
Prehistoric times
Time zones
Daylight Savings Time
The time of your life
In no time
(You’ll think of a lot more in the next few minutes)

2 Look up some things about time and make notes

The earliest efforts to keep track of time
Tracking sun and moon
Following constellations across the sky
Modern time pieces
Making a watch
Measuring distance in light years

3 Pick a subject that interests you and think about what you might write about it. Begin with random thoughts, whatever comes to mind.

I’ll choose LUNCH TIME from the first list.

What would I have to say about lunch time? I might write about eating lunch in our school cafeteria. Some kids are noisy and talk to their friends while others sit quietly and eat their food. Some days we get so noisy that teachers and even our principal have to stand up and give us the quiet sign until we settle down. Some days the food is good but I don’t always eat everything on my tray.

I could write my poem about the day the lights went out during lunch period and some of the little kids didn’t like it but some of the bigger ones threw stuff and no one could hear anything over all the yelling.

Or maybe I can write about how we have to line up to go to the cafeteria and walk down the hall behind our teacher. One time someone stepped on my heel and my shoe came off. Sometimes we get giggly and can’t seem to stop even when our teacher gives us “The look.” One time we got so out of control that our teacher made us go back to our room and start all over, and then we had to wolf our food down.

4 Pick an idea from the random description and list some points you might want to include in your poem.

I’ll choose getting “The look” in the lunchroom.


Making too much noise
Shoving in line
Dropping a tray
Poking someone
Not being polite
Not listening

5 Try a first draft.


Beware “The Look,”
It will turn your hair white
Teacher’s always watching
You mustn’t poke or run
Or shout
Or drop a tray
Or forget to listen
Or else you might get “The Look”
And go home white-headed.

6 Revise


Better behave at lunch time,
Kid, I’m warning you,
Teacher keeps her eagle eyes
On everything we do.

Lunch time is the wrong time
To run or drop a tray,
You mustn’t poke
Or yell or tease,
You must remember manners, please,
You must say thank you to the cook
Or else you’ll get “The Look.”

It fries your hair and turns it white
So you go home an awful sight
And give you little sis a fright!

“The Look!”

Click here to print.

I realize that everyone has his or her own way to develop a poem for the monthly challenge. I offer the suggestions below merely as another possibility. I’m posting this same thing on the Teacher page as the tool for January so you can always find it there if you forget the date of this posting. Although I wrote these suggestions with young poets in mind, I think the process would be much the same for poets of any age.

Let me know how this exercise works for you.



BULLETIN: Linda’s winning poem is up on Kathy’s writing and illustrating blog today, January 2nd and Priya’s poem is up on Linda and Priya, be sure to find them there.

BULLETIN: Jan Gallagher has a question for the group. Here it is.

David and Adult Poets posted here.
I appreciate your work.
May I have permission to share these poems with THE QUILL AND INK CLUB in Marshfield, MO on Wednesday
6 January 2010 ?
Please let me know. If you do not e-mail permission I will not print and share.
Janet Kay Gallagher

My response is that our poems and comments are generally meant for public view. We might copyright our invididual poems, especially if they should appear in books or magazines, but in the case of one poet wanting to share our body of work with other writers, hopefully to entice them to join the “gang,” I personally don’t have a problem.

WHAT SAY YOU? We need to respond to Jan right away. Thanks. DH


16 comments on “How to write a poem inspired by one word

    • Thanks, Mary Nida,

      Sometimes it does help to have a “system” to get started. Stories can spring from poems or least from the same idea. It happens to me too.


  1. Mary Nida,
    It’s also gone the other way for me. I’ve written stories that later became poems. Does that happen with you too?

    • Hello Diane,

      Thanks very much. Tomorrow I’m posting a note to principals to explain why I think Word of the Month Poetry Challenge is a practical exercise that can be applied across content areas in the classroom.


  2. This is great David.

    I especially like step number three, “Pick a subject . . . Begin with random thoughts, anything that comes to mind.”

    Such excellent advice for any kind of writer. Too often we shut ourselves down before we have come to the best idea. Thinking of “anything”, giving ourselves that freedom, before making a decision, generates so much to choose from.

    Happy New Year to you and all the Poets!


    • Hi Mimi,

      I’m glad you like the suggestions. As an emerging writer, I thought I had to write about anything that crossed my mind. These days I prefer to brainstorm with myself until I have a good list from which to choose. I mentioned in a previous post that I had a list of 38 ideas for giant stories before I chose the three I wrote for the book. When The Book of Giant Stories won a Christipher Medal, I was flattered but also became convinced that it pays to slow down and let your imagination play before plunging into a writing project.


  3. Very helpful, David. Thanks for the before and after poems. Such a difference between the two. Hopefully, I can find time to write a poem this month! 🙂

    P.S. Many local writers are participating in what we call JANO this month. We’re all attempting to write a 50-000 word novel during January. This is very similar to the popular NaNo Write month in November just on a smaller scale.

    • Thank you, Beth. One of the hardest steps for writers of any age is to pay serious attention to the process of revising and rewriting. I see those as two different things. When I revise, I try to get to the core of the work and shove things around like furniture in a small room. Once the chairs and tables are in the right places, i can go about polishing and waxing until I’m ready for company.


    • Beth,

      I forgot to wish you and other writers well who are tackling the JANO challenge this month. To write 50,000 words in a month takes commitment but I know you’ll do it!


  4. David,

    I love these mini lessons on how to approach a new poem or story – keep them coming.

    Since I do not know how many people on this blog are published, I thought I should point out to the group, you do not have to apply for a formal copyright for the poems you write.

    As soon as you write something, it is automatically copyrighted. If you do spend the money to copyright your work, it will only hinder a publisher if they want to publish your writing.

    Most new writers don’t know that, so it is kind of a “newbie red flag” if they tell a publisher they have a copyright on their work.

    Will you run into poems or stories that sound similar to your writing? Yes, but that probably will happen even if you never put your writing out for the public to read.

    If you see something someone else has written that you think is good and would like to post on your blog, then send them a note letting them know and ask if you can post it. If they are smart, they will say, “Yes.” Marketing is a very important thing and getting your name out there and associated with good writing is a great marketing plan.


    • Hi Kathy,

      Thank you for sharing your sage advice. I think we need to cut and paste this to an upcoming post to make sure that everyone sees it.l


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