Agile Writing – The Heuristic Approach to Writing

In my previous blog about the writing process, we looked at ‘word droughts’ of the blank page, or scrabbling for worthwhile words, phrases and ideas in the desert of Writers Block. If that helped, what next? Are you waiting for some exact recipe for the next stage? A procedure? A step-by-step assembly manual? When I started out with sonnets, I imagined such a thing might exist.

In recent years, I’ve come to see all techniques and methods as simply a toolbox for use in what is a heuristic or ‘agile’ approach to writing. You should rummage through these tools using what you need and, where possible, practise with these tools as much as possible.

This heuristic approach is increasingly being used in business and technology. I’m thinking about Elon Musk’s spacecraft, where from initial design ideas, every few months he launches something, tests it, and crucially updates the design for the next iteration that hopefully flies even better. He does not launch people on his craft until he knows it will not harm them. Luckily for us poets, our works can’t really harm people, at least not physically. Though, poems may have an objective to provoke others, or encourage them to explore uncomfortable ideas.

Such a writing heuristic approach could be summarised like this:

  1. Conceive an idea or theme, and also some deeper meaning or message;
  2. Search for components that may be potential candidates or alternatives, e.g. key words, diction, metaphors, techniques, rhymes, rhythms or forms;
  3. Build something. Just write some lines, choose a structure or form;
  4. Test it by self-editing, by reading aloud to yourself;
  5. Repeat above steps.

Then keep on repeating this cycle, in numerous iterations, until the poem “locks” or stabilises; it appears no more can be done. This is not always easy to determine and can result in you continuing to tweak a poem until it becomes over-worked. Ask a trusted reader to help you determine this. It takes me on average, with all of life’s vicissitudes, two months to complete a sonnet, so this is not necessarily a short process.

Finally, launch your poem to a receptive public in a suitable safe space. Musk does this from a launch pad in Texas, but for you, an open mic session in Tenterden or wherever would do!

Incidentally, I am currently reading an excellent guide to writing poems called The Craft, Edited by Rishi Dastidar, Nine Arches Press, ISBN: 978-1-911027-85-0, which contains 24 essays on writing poetry in the 21st century and has several good ideas on process and technique.

Agile Writing Titled

2 thoughts on “Agile Writing – The Heuristic Approach to Writing

  1. Hi Cliff, I just read your text about agile writing, but I didn’t understand why this heuristic approach is called “agile”.
    Kind regards
    Siegfried Paul


    • Hi, I use heuristic in the sense of a “trial and error” process, where the path to your desired destination, a completed work, is not pre-determined but allows for rapid changes in direction, or agility.


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