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How to Write a Sonnet

Kate Miller-Wilson
student writing a sonnet

Writing a sonnet is one of the best ways to learn about this poetry form, which consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Creating a sonnet also helps you learn to select the perfect words and sounds to use in your writing. Although a sonnet demands a specific meter and rhyme scheme, it can actually inspire some fantastic creative expression.

Writing a Sonnet

Everyone from William Shakespeare to Rainer Maria Wilke has tried his hand at the sonnet, and there are thousands of great examples to look at for inspiration. You can write a sonnet too as long as you understand the rules of this form.

1. Select a Theme

Like most pieces of writing, your sonnet should have a theme or main idea. This topic can be fundamental or seemingly small and insignificant, but it's essential that you have a clear idea of the theme before you start to write. Consider some of the following:

  • Love - According to the Poetry Foundation, love is one of the most popular sonnet topics. However, you can get creative with the idea of love. Maybe your sonnet will be about love for a special pet or the feeling of warmth you get when you open your front door.
  • Fear - On the other side of love, there's the primal emotion of fear. Everyone is afraid at some point, and this makes fear a topic that any reader can relate to. What worries you at night? What are you afraid of losing? You can explore this emotion in a sonnet.
  • Questions - Sonnets lend themselves to asking questions that can't be answered or that are difficult to answer. The desire to know the answer creates tension and interest in the reader. Your entire sonnet could consist of related questions, or you could spend the sonnet trying to answer a single mystery.

No matter what theme you select, it's helpful to start by jotting down a single sentence or a few words that summarize the plan for your sonnet.

2. Decide on a Volta

One of the iconic elements of most sonnets is the "volta," or turn. This is where the writer ends the sonnet with a bit of a surprise for the reader. You may think the sonnet is about one topic, when in fact, you find out the poet meant something else entirely. Alternatively, the volta might involve answering a question or coming to an unexpected conclusion. This twist makes the poem compelling, and it's important to know what it will be before you begin to write.

Additionally, you need to know something about your poem's volta before you choose a sonnet form. Give some thought to how many lines you'll need to reveal the surprise since some sonnet forms allow more space for this than others.

3. Understand the Sonnet Forms

There are two main types of sonnets, although each one has many off-shoots and subtle variations. Your sonnet will most likely belong to one of the following two forms:

  • Shakespearan - Made famous by William Shakespeare, this type of sonnet features 14 lines in the form of three quatrains and a couplet: ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG. The three quatrains, or four-line rhyming groups, form the main body of the sonnet; the couplet, or set of two rhymed lines, is the place where the volta is revealed. Because you must show the volta in only two lines, the Shakespearan sonnet reads something like an epiphany or sudden revelation.
  • Petrarchan - A Petrarchan sonnet, which gets its name from the 14th century Italian poet Petrarch, is also 14 lines; however, the rhyming of the line is very different. The sonnet is broken into an eight-line octave and a six-line sestet. The octave has the rhyme scheme ABBA, ABBA and is where the poet introduces the sonnet's theme. The sestet can rhyme CDCCDC or CDECDE, and it is where the volta takes place. This sonnet form is a good choice if your volta will occupy a lot of space within the poem.

4. Learn How to Use Iambic Pentameter

Whether you choose to write a Shakespearan sonnet or a Petrarchan sonnet, your poem will be in iambic pentameter. This is the particular rhythm or "meter" of your words. Most words have one or more accented syllables, which you can hear when you speak them aloud. Iambic phrases and sentences start with an unstressed syllable and then follow a pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed. In order for a line to be in pentameter, it needs to have five repetitions of its meter pattern.

It takes some experimenting to learn how to write in iambic pentameter, and it's good to have an example, such as the first line of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130: "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...." Saying the line aloud, you can hear that you accent the syllables that are bolded.

To get comfortable with iambic pentameter, practice identifying the meter of random words. Use a page of school work or anything else you have lying around, and start to mark the stressed syllables. Then further practice your meter identification by writing lines of iambic pentameter.

5. Start Writing

Now that you know the basics and have a plan for your sonnet's theme and volta, you're ready to get started. These tips will help:

  • On a piece of paper or in a computer document, jot the rhyme scheme of your chosen sonnet form in the margin. This will help you make sure you stick to the form.
  • If you have trouble rhyming a sound, using a rhyming dictionary like Rhyme Zone to help. You can type in the word you want to rhyme and then see all the possible options.
  • Use metaphors and similes to illustrate your sonnet's theme. Comparing something to something else is a great way to show the reader what you are saying.
  • Know that your first draft won't be perfect. Give yourself permission to make mistakes in the iambic pentameter and in the form. You'll be able to fix these, and no one does a perfect job the first time.
  • Also know that there are plenty of wonderful sonnets that break the rules just a bit. Sometimes, the poet does this on purpose to illustrate a point. If you choose to break the rules, show that you know what the rules are first. Most of your sonnet should follow the form.

6. Revise

Once you've finished your first draft, set it aside for a day or two. This gives you a little space from it and allows you to look at it with fresh eyes. Ask yourself the following questions as you revise your poem:

  • Does every line work with your chosen theme? If a line is in there just to maintain the form, you should revise it to make the poem more powerful.
  • Does every word have a reason to be in the poem? You don't have many words with a sonnet, and each one needs to be the perfect choice.
  • Is the meter consistent? It's also a good idea to have someone else check your meter. That way, you can fix any mistakes during your revision.
  • Is there anything that you are telling instead of showing the reader? You can improve your poem by using imagery to help the reader experience what you're describing.

Be Proud of Your Sonnet

Writing a sonnet isn't easy, but it is a great way to learn about several important literary devices. From gaining an understanding of meter to learning how to use metaphors effectively, you'll be a better writer after this exercise. What's more, you'll be proud of the sonnet you worked so hard to create.

How to Write a Sonnet