When to Ignore Advice

Photo credit: Pam Thompson

The more absolute a piece of advice, the less confidence the advice-giver has. Rules are comforting: they provide a framework, like a safety harness or a pair of stablisers, particularly in creative work where it is harder to measure the outcome objectively. Rules help writers avoid common mistakes and act as a way of passing on experience learnt the hard way. But they don’t give much room for creativity and some rules, e.g. write x number of words per day, are ableist and fail to allow for different writing routines and patterns. Rules also tend to focus on the mechanics of writing, e.g. getting words on a page, because these are measurable. They don’t focus on how a writer finds and selects those words: the daydreaming, research, thinking, the actual creative work, because that can’t be measured.

Mostly advice is given with good intentions or to a specific group of people. “Write every day” is useful for beginners who need to get into the writing routine and out of the habit of waiting for inspiration. It’s not so useful for writers whose creativity ebbs and flows, who can go for weeks without writing and then find themselves in a month where they can do nothing but write. It’s also unhelpful for writers with disabilities or chronic conditions who literally cannot write everyday.

The problem occurs when a piece of advice is put on social media without regard for its audience. It’s presented as an absolute rule with no thought as to how it got that status or its impact on an audience it wasn’t intended for.

Recently this appeared on twitter,

“People reading ten lines of performance poetry out of their notebooks need to up their game. If you don’t know it then it’s not ready. At any one time the average rapper has about 4000 words ready to go from memory.”

  • Poems work in two media: the page and the stage. Rap generally only works on stage (yes, lyrics can be published, but the primary focus is performance). The comparison is not balanced: it’s not comparing like with like.
  • Rap relies on rhyme and ad-libbing. It’s much more focused on the instant, a call and response to a topic or idea. The rhymes act as a mnemonic, so long as they are in place, getting each word before the rhyme is less critical. Rap also uses repetition. Poetry less so. Poems can rhyme but are not obliged to. Each word counts and must justify its position in the poem. There’s no room for error since precision is key. Substituting ‘harbour’ for ‘quayside’ can completely change perspective in a poem. Poems can’t be ad-libbed.
  • A poem is ready when it’s ready. Not when the poet can remember it off by heart. A poem is not dependent on its poet performing it. A poem is capable of standing alone and being read off the page without the poet being present.
  • Poets also have large stores of words ‘ready to go’ but poems aren’t just working in the medium of performance. So having a large stores of words memorised doesn’t help learn and retain an individual poem.
  • Rap tends to be a rapid flow of words where silence is frowned on. Poems aren’t just the words, but also the spaces, the line endings and stanza breaks. Silence is part of the poem. If a poet’s not careful, silence can inadvertently signal to the audience the poem has finished when a pause is intended. Reading from a page/screen is a visual clue that the poem hasn’t finished.
  • In memorising a poem so it can be performed despite distractions – audiences don’t always sit nicely for the poet – there’s a risk the poem is performed by rote and merely recited rather than expressed. A reading where a poet looks over the audience’s heads or even closes their eyes to recite a poem is one where the audience feels disengaged.
  • Conversely there’s also the risk that poets desperate not to just recite a poem end up over-emoting or trying to act out the scene the poem describes, resulting in an over-the-top reading which can be unintentionally comical or so distracting the audience forgets they’re listening to a poem.
  • Audiences can find the sight of a book or screen reassuring. Poets aren’t actors and a poet having to pause a reading to re-start a poem or give up on a poem because they’ve forgotten the third stanza is uncomfortable not just for the poet but the audience too.

There are many reasons why some poets don’t perform from memory and not all of them are due to memory impairments/disabilities. Reading from a notebook or screen is a visual prompt that the focus is on the poem, not the poet, a reminder that poems have the alternative medium of the page.

Slams can invent their own rules and if a slam rules that poems should be performed from memory, you don’t have to enter. But poetry readings, whether in a live venue or on video stream (live or pre-recorded), you are in control and you do not have to memorise your work. I don’t. That’s my personal choice and I stand by it.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

3 Responses to “When to Ignore Advice”

  1. K Morris Poet Says:

    Whilst I do remember many of my poems, I always read from the page when performing them. This acts (as you rightly point out) as an aid to memory. Even when reading one can stumble over a word or lose one’s place. However, when reading, the poet can find his/her place on the page once more but, if the memory blanks it is often impossible to regain the flow of the poem, and even those with good memories do, from time to time forget their lines. Kevin

  2. Robin Houghton Says:

    Good points as always, Emma. Reading from memory isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. I agree that ‘looking over the audience’s heads’ or closed eyes when reading is disengaging, but so is reading from a book/sheet of paper/phone without looking up at the audience at all. Personally I do try to catch people’s eyes but I’m aware I fall back on ‘skimming’ the audience. When I’m in the audience it feels amazing when a poet catches your eye, as if they really are reading to you. I wish it happened more often. I have done some readings off the book and I did find the extra preparation time needed freed me up to be more expressive when I read. But if you’re not secure enough I agree it can be distracting for the audience, and I do remember once completely blanking but thankfully it was at the end of a reading so I was able to laugh it off. As my husband says (about performing music): amateurs practise until they get it right, professionals practise until they can’t get it wrong 🙂

  3. emmalee1 Says:

    That’s where good introductions or linking pieces where the poet talks between poems come in: It gives the audience a breathing space between each poem and allows the poet chance to look directly at the audience. I’ve talked about rehearsing elsewhere and it’s never a good stage to skip.


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