On Poetry: Line Breaks

In our most recent blog posts we’ve been talking a lot about our editing philosophies or editing advice for genre writing. Today, we’re going to take a more general look at poetic line breaks. All poems (except prose poems) have line breaks, but why? What do line breaks actually do? And how do you know where or how to break your lines?

Lines breaks help poems jump across images (a fancy word for this is “parataxis”), stand in for punctuation or assumed connective words, emphasise the rhyme or rhythm of the lines, give weight to specific words, or any combination of these elements.

We all know about end-rhyme, but the last word of each line does not need to rhyme in poetry, so how do you know when to end your lines?

Well, before we can answer that, we need to know what effect different line lengths have on readers. Typically, readers will read poems so that each line takes them the same amount of time to read as every other line, regardless of length. This means that short lines are read slow and long lines are read fast.

A good rule to follow for line breaks is that each line should be equivalent to each other line (so that when a reader is reading each line within the same time span, they receive about the same amount of information to process). This does not mean your lines have to have the same number of words or letters! It means you get to play around with line lengths to give extra emphasis to shorter lines.

If you still aren’t quite sure about line lengths, go find a short poem (rupi kaur’s poetry works well for this because she doesn’t use punctuation). Type the poem into a paragraph form (i.e., no line breaks). Without looking at the original, insert line breaks where you think they should go. Don’t look at the original! Did you break the lines evenly? Are some lines only one word long? Did you end the lines where there would usually be punctuation (i.e., commas or periods)? Did you end or begin your lines on words that feel important or stand out in some way?

Once you really consider where you put the line breaks and why you did so (even if your answer is just “because it feels right”), compare your lines breaks to the original. If you have different line breaks, ask the same questions of the original poem that you asked about your line breaks. Why would the author break the line differently than you, even when it’s the same words? This exercise isn’t to prove if you can do line breaks ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but to get you thinking about how line breaks work. Try it out again, but this time with one of your own poems, and see what happens.

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