Three weeks of wrangling words into position—and still when you cap your pen or click Save, there’s a crumpled shirt tag chafing at your neck. Something isn’t right. Why does your poem feel unfinished no matter how many times you smooth things into place?

You read it out loud. The language has a stilted quality. Or the images don’t segue seamlessly from one to the next. Like pulling on a sweater when there’s a thread or two coming loose, and the sleeve catches halfway up your arm. Consider this: You may actually have chosen the perfect verbs and nouns—but it’s their sequence that’s the problem!

One trick I use often is to simply swap the order of lines in a sentence. It’s a very small tweak, but the change in perspective can do wonders against that stilted feeling we, as poets, know well. For example, see what happens when I switch these two lines around:

I stare down January at 12 below
At the top of the sledding hill

Kind of choppy, wouldn’t you say? So I switched them:

At the top of the sledding hill

I stare down January at 12 below

There. More slope in the melody. Sometimes the switch works with two clauses in a compound sentence. I began with:

Threadbare bedsheets, chapped winters

… which made my jaw hurt. So then I tried:

Chapped winters, threadbare bedsheets.

By having “Chapped winters” first, that set the season. When “threadbare bedsheets” followed, it made me feel even colder. Voilá!

Like online games where a reshuffle of letters allows you to see a new word, shuffling the sequence can sometimes make your poem snap! into place.

Shoshauna ShyShoshauna Shy is a Midwestern poet and flash fiction author, and the founder of Woodrow Hall Editions, the Woodrow Hall Jumpstart and Top Shelf awards, and the Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf program. Currently, Shoshauna works as an editor for Flash Fiction Magazine’s sister publication, 101 Words, and as a copy editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her poems have been published in The Seattle Review, Cimarron Review, The Briar Cliff Review, Rattle, Poetry Northwest and by over 200 other journals and presses. One of her poems was selected for the Poetry 180 Library of Congress program launched by Billy Collins.

Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Writing Tips

Cleaver Magazine