my journey of writing ten thousand haiku.

the only rules are:

1. follow the three line, 5-7-5 syllable structure of a western haiku.

2. make each haiku as beautiful and emotive as possible.

read more about my other work here.

I’ve written in more depth about how I write haiku below.

:: How I Write Haiku ::

As part of writing for my tenthousandhaiku project, I have noticed in ever greater detail my creative process in terms of writing haiku. 

This has been as interesting and rewarding to me as the haiku themselves. Plus part of the aim of tenthousandhaiku was to master a form, to some extent. 

So I felt it could helpful to document how I write haiku for others to read too.

First, the essential tools I need to write haiku - 

Pen, paper, fingers. 

Sometimes I type haiku straight off, but I prefer writing with pen and paper first. And I use my fingers to count the syllables. Which brings us to the haiku rules I have. 

There are only two:

1. The haiku needs to be three lines, seventeen syllables. Five the first line, seven the middle line, five the last line. I’ll refer to this as 5-7-5 for short.

2. The haiku needs to be emotive, beautiful and memorable in some way.

Some other rules I try to follow, but not so rigidly:

Feature a lot of nature. Most haiku I write contain a tree, a river, a mountain, the sea, the sky, the earth, or some other natural element.

Capture a moment in a way that is powerful in itself, but that also suggests there have been moments before and there will be moments after. In other words the haiku might be a single frame of a longer film.

I have also noticed I often use a tension of scales, in other words write about something large and something small within one haiku for example, so each emphasises the other. 

Here’s an example of a haiku this tension of scales:

the continent’s edge,

lips pressed upon her shoulder, 

finally, goodbye.

The word “continent” contrasts with “lips” and “shoulder” in its scale, and hopefully adds to the overall impact of the scene.

These basic rules stated then, let’s look at how I actually write the haiku.

The first thing I will need is a scene in my mind. Usually, and especially if I want to write a flurry of haiku in one sitting, I will find a quiet place, take a pen and paper, close my eyes and let the images form. 

Everyone can do this. If you create the space and the silence, the images will come, they’re already there in your mind, in a similar way that when you venture out into the world with a camera, the scenes are already there just waiting to be photographed.

I’ll let a few images merge and come and go and take form, until I see something of interest, and I focus in a little. In the way when you’re scanning the horizon and something catches your eye and you squint a little to focus in. 

This process is also a bit like tuning in an old analogue dial radio. You turn the knob very gradually through all the white noise and static, until a snatch of something interesting flickers to life from the radio, so you ease back and forth a little and try to let the signal become more clear. 

So I describe, in my head, what I’m seeing. Maybe it’ll come out something like “her white dress in the water”. 

Right now I’m seeing a young woman standing at the edge of the ocean, wearing a white dress, and as she wanders in, the water seeps up, slowly soaking the dress. 

I’ll then repeat the initial line I have, and count the syllables on my fingers. In this example, it’s seven, so I could use that right away as my middle line of the haiku. 

If I had had an initial description that was something like: “her transparent white sea soaked dress” then I have eight syllables. Too many for a single line (as they need to fit the 5-7-5 haiku discipline).

So I have two options essentially. 

1. Edit this line so it fits to either seven or five syllables. 

2. Carry a syllable, or syllables, on to another line. 

If I went with the first option, I could edit down to seven syllables - “her dress, sea soaked, transparent”, or five syllables - “her dress, transparent”. Then I still have the other two lines of the haiku, if I wish, to add back the extra detail, if I feel it’s essential.

If I felt that inital eight syllable line was so great it couldn’t be edited, I would take the second option, and carry over to another line. For example -

her transparent white sea soaked 

dress, still billowing.

could become the middle and last line of the haiku. 

This is one of the ways we can bend the rules a little, but still stick to the three line 5-7-5 discipline. 

Then we have just the first line to complete. 

A quick note on punctuation. I only use commas and full stops. If I’m indicating a written quote or someone speaking, I’ll use quotation marks. Very occasionally I’ll use a question mark.

The most important part about punctuation in haiku for me is it shows the reader where to pause. 

Although there are always three lines, we don’t always want the reader to pause at the end of each line, just like in the example above where we carried the word “dress” over to the next line. 

That’s pretty much it with punctuation. Sometimes I’ll write a haiku with just a full stop at the end, and no other punctuation, which is similar to saying it’s a single line poem, just spread over a three line 5-7-5 pattern.

Back to our haiku example. you’ll recall we had the middle and last lines - 

her transparent white sea soaked 

dress, still billowing.

 So let’s follow this option through. 

You could try to return to that original image you had in your mind, but it’s likely that as you’ve been writing it has already evolved. Details might have disappeared from the first thought, other new ones might have now emerged.

I would look at what I have with the two lines and consider what else is needed to make it memorable, or to finish it so it was a complete scene. 

Another one of my informal tendencies, rather than rules, is I often use seasons or months of the year. It’s a very concise way of summoning powerful, memorable images. 

So with our haiku here, we could add the first line - “July’s first morning,” to give us -

July’s first morning,

her transparent white sea soaked 

dress, still billowing.

You, as the reader, will have your own set of associations with the first day of July, but it’s likely this line will summon up fairly strong and clear images for you. And it gives a different take on the last two lines, compared with them just standing on their own. 

With the July line, we’re probably now thinking of the sea as warm, clear and tranquil, it being midsummer, and so on. It makes the scene more appealing, more romantic even.

But what if we had gone for an opposite effect with our first line? Let’s try instead - “in December’s jaws”, which gives us -

in December’s jaws,

her transparent white sea soaked 

dress, still billowing.

The overall feel and vibe is very different to the July line. The initial picture we paint then seeps into the remainder of the haiku. The middle and last lines are exactly the same as before, but because they’re led into in a different way, they change too, in our perception.

And this is a good example of the power we wield as haiku poets. 

In a novel, even in a short story of a few hundred words, changing a word or two is unlikely to have a great effect on the writing overall. 

In a haiku however, changing a word, or a single syllable can transform the scene and the emotion hugely. Every syllable counts.

This example we’ve just walked through is one where there was already a fairly vivid image from the start. 

Sometimes though, we might have a strong visual in our minds, but aren’t getting it to the page in a very impactful way. Something I watch out for here is how many “filler” words I’m using. 

Let’s stick with our original scene of the girl in the water as an example, and this time let’s say the first line we think of is - “there is a girl in a white dress in the sea”. If this was a novel, or even a long poem, this line might be fine. 

But we’re writing haiku. 

We’re wasting too many of our precious seventeen syllables on filler words like “there” and “is”. 

The line takes up eleven syllables. We could edit it down to - “a girl in a white dress in the sea”, which is better, nine syllables. But still wasteful!

The essential words of this line are “girl”, “white dress” and “sea”.

But we don’t even need to use those specific words to present the same scene. For example, where we had - “there is a girl in a white dress”, eight syllables, we could simply write - “her white dress”, and use a mere three syllables to convey essentially the same image.

This economy of writing is paramount in haiku, and we often need to be ruthless in hacking away syllables that are “filler” words, and as we can see from this example, it’s not just a case of removing words like “there” and “is”, but also being a little creative and replacing lines like “there is a girl” simple with “her” or “she”. 

Back to our long line - “there is a girl in a white dress in the sea”, and let’s hone that down further to - “her soaked white dress”.

Now we have only four syllables, so we have the opposite problem to our previous example where we carried syllables over into the next line. 

Here with our four syllable line, we can do two things - 

1. Use the last spare syllable to begin the next line. 

2. Add a syllable to enhance the image.

Going with the first option -

her soaked white dress, but

though it covered her body,

could be our first and middle line. We add “but” as the fifth syllable in line one, and didn’t use any punctuation after it so the reader would flow straight into the following line. 

Now, another point comes up. These two lines, while creating a visual, probably aren’t as fluid or coherent as they could be. Now we added the “but” at the end of the first line, and the middle line, it might make sense to tweak the order of the first line.

her white dress, soaked, but

though it covered her body,

just seems to flow better in this case.

If we took our second option of adding a syllable, or syllables, when we have only a four syllable (or fewer) line and need to make it a five or seven syllable line, we could do the following -

Our four syllables were - “her soaked white dress”. We could change this to - “her ripped, soaked white dress” for example to make the image more vivid, and suggest more backstory to the scene. The reader would naturally wonder how the dress became ripped. 

Or, maybe we could edit to - “her blood soaked white dress” which obviously adds a whole other dimension and feel. This again is a great example of our power as haiku poets, and how a single syllable can have a huge impact. 

Let’s leave this version, and return to where we were with the first option, using the last syllable of the first line to carry over and begin the middle line. If you recall, we had -

her white dress, soaked, but

though it covered her body,

as our haiku so far. We can finish this as we wish, and again our choice of the last five syllables has a huge impact on the overall haiku. 

Before, with the July/December variation, I talked about how a different first line led us into the middle and last lines in a different frame of mind, and so influenced them too. 

Here we have a similar concept going on, but it’s at the end of the haiku where we can change its meaning. 

If we related this to stories, it’s the equivalent to building up to the end, and either having a satisfying, yet predictable ending to the story, or a thought provoking or even shocking plot twist. 

Let’s add - “her heart remained bare”, so our whole haiku looks like -

her white dress, soaked, but

though it covered her body,

her heart remained bare.

A couple of things here to notice. First, I’ve used a contrast. Remember the “tension of scales” I mention earlier? This is a similar thing, a tension of opposites, if you will. 

The words “covered” and “bare” are opposites, so each emphasise the other. We get the impression that however this girl may cover herself up physically, she would still feel bare, or vulnerable emotionally - “her heart remained bare”.

It also suggests more to the first two lines. If her heart is bare, has she recently suffered a loss or separation? The mention of the sea actually disappeared when we edited before, so her dress now may be soaked from rainfall. Or from tears, her own or someone else’s. And why is she in a white dress? The most obvious symbolism is a wedding dress. Has she been stood up, broken hearted, at the altar? 

What you will notice here too is that what we initially write for our haiku, doesn’t have to be all worked out in terms of backstory or too much description. 

A few paragraphs ago, we had an anonymous girl in a wet dress. Now, she’s a poor woman who’s been stood up on her wedding day by a fool of a fiance… 

As a reader, my imagination has taken the bare descriptive bones of the haiku and created a story from it, based on all the other images and associations and memories I have in my head. 

Our role as haiku poets is to create just enough detail and emotion to give the reader something to latch on to, but not so much that we give them the whole scene and story. 

That’s the the crux of the art of writing haiku, in my opinion. The concept of writing “just enough”, and finding where that “just enough” is in different scenes and different haiku.

Let’s rewind to what we were saying about having a different final line to give the scene or story a shocking twist. 

What if our final line was - “her head wasn’t found”?

So our haiku is now -

her white dress, soaked, but

though it covered her body,

her head wasn’t found.

Now this is a somewhat macabre ending, but I hope it illustrates the point again of what power we have in such few syllables. 

Reading this haiku for the first time, the majority of us would be very unlikely to be thinking of a dead and decapitated girl after reading just the first two lines. 

In these examples above I have used lines that have carried over, and though I do this quite often, when I can I like to stick to complete lines on each line. It just feel more “pure” somehow.

So what you’ve just read is is the essence of how I write haiku. 

The more I’ve written, the more I’ve got a feel for the format, and it becomes easier and more instinctive to come up with lines that fit 5-7-5.

How I’ve written the process out above might seem a great deal of almost scientific analysis goes into the haiku. I would add that this all becomes instinctive and rewriting a line to fit the number of syllables I need might take a minute or two. It’s not a long, drawn out and arduous process.

Sometimes a whole new haiku tumbles out in a couple of minutes. Others might be crafted and revisited over a few days, or even weeks, until they feel right, though I don’t tend to work on a single haiku for a great deal of time in one session. If it’s not working, I move on. Some don’t ever get finished, and remain just fragments.

When you begin writing haiku, you might always have ten or eleven syllable lines that need to be heavily edited to fit. It’s unusual, and challenging to most writers to have so few syllables and such tight rules to play with.

Mostly likely at first it will be the “filler” words you’re adding too many of, then removing, leaving the core essence of the image intact. Again, like any artform, the more we practise our craft, the more eloquent we become.

One final element I wanted to mention. 

There are two ways to get better at writing haiku. 

1. Keep writing them, keep practising, keep experimenting.

2. Always remember to keep letting the inspiration in. Again, like any artist, if we wander around oblivious to our surroundings, we never let any of the tiny beautiful details of life in. Haiku are all about the tiny beautiful details, and we need to be aware of them to capture them and express them to the reader. 

You can practise this, simply by going somewhere on your own, sitting down and focusing on one of your senses.

Start with your hearing. Listen to everything going on as carefully as you can. You’ll realise that what you probably thought were two or three sounds around you (and within you!) become five, six, ten or more channels, that together form the organic, ambient symphony that surrounds you.

Then practise with another sense. The more you do this, the better you’ll be able to notice and absorb the details of life, the more raw material you’ll have stored up to draw from, and so the more rich your writing will become. 

I hope you gained something from reading this guide on how I write haiku.

You can learn as much again (probably more) from reading some of the haiku I’ve written so far. Just hit the random button below a few times and see what you find.

Thanks for reading, and may haiku fill your life!