Breaking Lines

So it seems to have been a while since I have posted a direct writing advice post. I always feel a little silly doing this kind of post saying ‘here let me help you with writing!’ because I find writing a very personal event. However, if I do want to be a professor of creative writing (which I do) then I need to get over that. So let’s start this thing! *cracks knuckles*


I started writing fiction so learning line breaks was my biggest struggle with poetry. ‘How in the world can I break a sentence in two, three, four lines! That’s craziness!’ I would think, staring at this odd little poem I’d just written. How do you know where to break the line? What does it matter? What’s a line break do? Why do I want to break anything, anyways?

Well, first off, I had to stop thinking of it as ‘breaking’ the line. An advisor of mine suggested I call it turning the line, determining the road of the poem and where I want it to bend and sway, how far ahead I want the reader to see, and how sharp of a curve I want it to be.

But don't get carried away. You're not driving a race car.

What’s the difference between a short line and a long line? Think about the difference between taking a road full of short curves and a road of long curves. The short curves jerk you from one place to the next rapidly, sometimes before you even know what’s coming. It seems faster, harder, and sometimes, choppy. Long curves pull you gradually where you’re going, though sometimes unexpected things pop up along the way, catching you off guard, making you jump as you slowly curve from one place to the other.

Well, you may ask ‘why do my lines all have to be the same length? That’s boring. I’m a rebel, I want all different length lines, yeah! I’m hardcore!’

Okay, I doubt you’re saying that because if you’re reading this you’re awesome and thus not as silly as I am. There is nothing wrong with varying the length of your lines. A short line in a sea of long ones will really stand out and it better be an important moment of the poem. A series of one or two word lines will drag the poem down and create an almost melting visual effect which can also do the opposite of what short lines usually do and slow things down.

Okay, let’s check out this poem and mess with it a little. Don’t worry it’s Ezra Pound, he’d be okay with it (I hope).

Okay here’s the original:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd ;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Okay, longer lines, slowly moving curving towards the strong alliteration of ‘black bough.’ where the poem ends.


The apparition
of these
in the crowd ;
on a wet,

What’s the difference? The shorter lines make this poem move faster. There is more emphasis on the faces and petals since they are alone on their lines. Also, wet black bough has been broken up and separated making the image a little more disjointed and I feel, losing some of the punch to it. I also think it makes some of the words irrelevant. For example, were this my poem and it was in this form, I would probably remove of these in the second line and simply have “The apparition–/faces ” but that’s going into an entirely different subject entirely.

I still struggle with line turns. My poems often begin as chunks of paragraphs that I have to take a little chisel to. I like to print them out and work from where it feels natural to turn the line, a pause or a breath. But sometimes you have to break what’s natural to make a point in your poetry.

What’s your experience with breaking/turning your lines of poetry? How do you decide where you need a short line versus a long line?



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jessica Varin, Judy Black. Judy Black said: Breaking Lines: […]

  2. Eric Alder Said:

    I’m about 50-50 when it comes to line breaks.

    Sometimes, like you, I’ll write out everything in one big paragraph, then parse it out wherever it seems logical.

    Other times the breaks occur naturally as I write, especially when they seem to fall into a pattern all their own.

    (This also explains why I tend to shy-away from specific forms; in the end, they usually take on their own form)

    • Judy Black Said:

      I agree with that! A lot of times my line breaks just seem to form themselves, other times it’s working from a paragraph and the line breaks take a long time to work out.

  3. julietwilson Said:

    very interesting post! I like your use of line turns, that’s very helpful! I write a lot of short poems, which end up by default with short lines. For longer poems I tend to write longer lines, though not too long. I like to end a line with a strong word, I don’t like poems where a lot of lines end with words such as ‘and’ or even worse ‘the’ (I have seen a poem with three consequitive lines ending in ‘the’ which seems to me ugly and lacking an understanding of line turns, but I also know that there is a line of postmodern poetry that sees lines ending in weak words as a good thing.

    • Judy Black Said:

      I have seen that trend with weak word endings and I think it can work in some cases but I prefer to end with a stronger word. I do really find that thinking of it as a line turn instead of a break makes it easier for me to work with guiding the poem.
      Three ‘the’ line endings in a row? Wow, that… Wow.

  4. julietwilson Said:

    Oops! I’m logged in with wordpress but poetically i love on blogger at

    • julietwilson Said:

      live I mean not love, obviously not my day!

      • Judy Black Said:

        Aw, that’s okay! Everyone has those days!

  5. Laura Said:

    I think the best test of your “line breaks” is to read the poem out loud. If it comes naturally, you’re good. If not–if it sounds too cumbersome in your mouth or too choppy–you may need to lengthen, shorten, or even rephrase your lines. I also find that reading aloud (embarrassing as it might be sometimes) forces you to look at–listen to–any of your writing, not just poetry, in a way that is different and usually very helpful. You might even discover mistakes that your eyes skimmed over on the page/screen. I know I have.

    • Judy Black Said:

      Yes, yes, yes! Reading a poem out loud is an absolute must! Another trick is to read it aloud backwards. Start at the last line (or the ending) and work your way forward. it really helps you find any misplaced or overlooked words that might have slipped in. But great advice, a line break/turn must sound natural when read a loud.

  6. Frank Kluczynski Said:

    Ok all I want to know is were is this road.

    • Andi Judy Said:

      Good question. Some google searches later I think it’s the Stelvio Pass in Italy. Hope that helps!

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