3 Things I Learned About Writing: Analyzing Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC

3. Be deliberate. “Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable” (69).
Publish date:

This reoccurring column takes the classic writing advice “good writers are good readers” and puts it to work, by looking at books across all time periods and all genres to find techniques that we can apply in our own work. This installment examines Claudia Rankine's highly acclaimed poetry collection CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC.

1. Visuals are powerful


What’s most important about this picture is the way the image dialogues with this essay. Rankine’s essay focuses on Serena Williams and race. She looks at the way race factors into sports and how we judge an athlete’s response to a bad call based on race. This image initially has nothing to do with either of those things. It’s a person covered in flowers. However, the image gives the reader something new to think about. Our brains try to fit it in with our understanding of what we’re reading and make the two things make sense. It offers a new perspective. Let your poetry dialogue with images and art. The image and the written word can be a powerful pairing.

(4 ways besides query letters you can contact literary agents.)


Column by Hannah Haney, a regular contributor to the GLA blog
and to Writer’s Digest. She is the Managing Editor for Relief Journal
and has been published in The Cincinnati Enquirer and Writer’s Digest.
In her free time, she reads good books, 
eats good food, and writes bad
poetry. You can follow her on
Twitter or on her blog.

2. Be creative with the page.


The point of this photo is less about the poem itself and more about Rankine’s use of white space. This is all that appears on the page. Just these five lines. The rest of the page is completely white. This factors into Rankine’s larger theme that black is seen the most strongly when placed against a white background. Our eyes are drawn to the black text, not the vast expanse of white space. Rankine creatively uses the page to make a point throughout her whole collection. Poetry is meant to explore the page. Don’t feel like your poems must always be right-justified. Play with lines and stanzas. Use the whole page, or barely any of it, like Rankine. Explore.

3. Be deliberate.

“Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable” (69).

(Hate writing queries? Find agents through contests, referrals, critiques and conferences.)

The poem this line comes from is only 6 lines long. Every word Rankine uses here counts for double. She must set the scene, give us conflict, and some sort of release. She uses the first sentence (the first 4 lines) to set us up. This last sentence, the end of the poem, is both conflict and release. The woman “you and your friend” are referring to is uncomfortable, even though she keeps saying she isn’t. The reader is forced to assess who is making her uncomfortable. Is it “you and your friend”? Is she uncomfortable at all? Why is she uncomfortable? The reader sits in the white space following the end of poem and thinks on these questions. Rankine doesn’t give us the answers in the poem. She lets us find our own answers. Make these kinds of deliberate choices in your poetry. Make your words count. Be as precise as you possibly can and then a little more.


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Image placeholder title

How to Blog a Book by Nina Amir discusses
how to slowly release a novel online to generate
interest in your writing and work.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Abate vs. Bait vs. Bate (Grammar Rules)

Abate vs. Bait vs. Bate (Grammar Rules)

Learn the differences of abate, bait, and bate on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

Sarah Pinsker: On Reviving the Set-Aside Story

Award-winning novelist Sarah Pinsker discusses how she picked up and put down a story over many years which would eventually become her latest release, We Are Satellites.

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Mary Alice Monroe: On Writing the Family Saga

Award-winning author Mary Alice Monroe discusses what it's like to draft a series that spans generations and storylines.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Final Competition Deadline, Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

This week, we’re excited to announce the Self-Published Book Awards deadline for 2021, details on the upcoming Short Story Virtual Conference, and more!

John B. Thompson | Book Wars

John B. Thompson: On Researching Changes in the Book Publishing Industry

John B. Thompson, author of the new book Book Wars, shares the research that went into his account of how the digital revolution changed publishing for readers and writers.

From Script

Supporting AAPI Storytellers and Tapping into Mythical World Building (From Script)

In this week’s round-up from ScriptMag.com, meet South-East-Asian-American filmmakers and screenwriters, plus interviews with screenwriter Emma Needell and comic book writer/artist Matt Kindt, TV medical advisor Dr. Oren Gottfried, and more!

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

What Is a Personal Essay in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a personal essay (also known as the narrative essay) is, including what makes it different from other types of fiction and nonfiction writing, examples of effective personal essays, and more.

FightWrite™: How Do People Who Don’t Know How to Fight, Fight?

FightWrite™: How Do People Who Don’t Know How to Fight, Fight?

If your character isn't a trained fighter but the scene calls for a fight, how can you make the scene realistic? Author and trained fighter Carla Hoch has the answers for writers here.

April PAD Challenge

30 Poetry Prompts for the 2021 April PAD Challenge

Find all 30 poetry prompts for the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge in this post.