How to Win a Poetry Competition

Entering a poetry competition is an excellent way to improve your writing skills and gain some recognition for your work.  If it is a live-reading poetry competition, it can be an opportunity to see how an audience reacts to your poems and you can meet some talented poets.

However, if you are the competitive type, your main reason for entering the competition will be to win.  If this sounds like you, you will enjoy this article.  In it, we’ll share some useful tips that will help you do well in any poetry competition.


Avoid certain topics

It can be very difficult to win a poetry competition if you are writing about cliched topics like romance, Autumn leaves, or sunsets.  You should also avoid topics which may offend or upset the audience.  For example, don’t write a poem that features graphic descriptions of sex or rants about religion.

Choose a title that makes the audience think

The title of your poem is an opportunity to pique the curiosity of the audience and grab their attention.  Use a title which is humorous, puzzling, creative, or somewhat unusual.  The audience will immediately become much more interested in your work, helping your open stand out from the crowd.  Here are a few tips for writing a great title:

  • Keep it short – Titles that are less than five or 6 words tend to be the most effective.
  • Make the title a clue for the audience – After completing the poem, think about its true meaning and major themes. The title should be a clue to the audience that leads them towards one of those themes.
  • Make the audience think – Consider using a title which only makes sense if the audience thinks about the concept and context of the poem. If they are asked to think they will examine your work more closely and be excited when they discover an underlying theme.
  • Make it catchy – Having a poem title that is easy to remember and a clever combination of words will help your work stand out during the competition.

For an example, consider “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.  After seeing the title, the reader immediately wonders which missed opportunities is the author is writing about.   A poem title like the wonderful “If we Could Speak Like Wolves” by Kim Moore is another poem with a curious title that immediately engages the reader.

Write first lines that draw the reader’s attention

Once the reader has had their interest piqued with a great title, follow up with a few punchy first lines that continue to engage them.  Looking at If we Could Speak Like Wolves once more:

If I could wait for weeks for the slightest change

in you, then each day hurt you in a dozen

different ways, bite heart-shaped chunks

of flesh from your thighs to test if you flinch

or if you could be trusted to endure,

This wonderful introduction uses some interesting metaphors to describe a complex relationship between a married couple.  It talks of trust, perseverance, and the ways that couples test one another during their relationship.   It immediately grabs the attention of the reader, largely thanks to the use of language that is confronting and visceral.

Don’t feel constrained by technique, form or structure

There are many technical rules about how poems should be written.  While these rules are often very useful for writing a strong poem, don’t feel compelled to use them in everything you write.  Focus on writing a piece that delivers an emotional response in the audience — even if it does not follow the normal form of a sonnet or sestina.

Finish the poem strongly

Having your poem finish on a strong note will help it do well in the competition.  In many cases, having the final line identify a core theme within the poem can work well, as in If we Could Speak Like Wolves.  The final lines of Moore’s poem confirm that it is about marriage (something many readers would have realised earlier).  It explains the theme to the readers who can then read the poem through again with this theme in mind.

we sent our lonely howls across the estuary

where in the fading light wader birds stiffen

and take to the air, then we could agree

a role for each of us, more complicated

than alpha, more simple than marriage. 

Read your poem aloud before submitting it

Finally, read your poem out loud multiple times to assess its form and the language you have used.  You can also test your poem on an audience of family or friends to gain useful feedback.

Richard Hammond

I am the founder of 9Mousai and am deeply interested in creativity and what inspires it. My main passions are writing, film and music but I have huge respect for all the arts. I'm also an animal lover and have a little cat called Winston and enjoy the occasional whiskey or two...

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