How to Write like Billy Collins

by Phil James

Breville Espresso Machine

Billy Collins has achieved what so many others have failed to accomplish: to write about ordinary life in an extraordinary and often hilarious fashion. As poet Richard Howard puts it, “Mr. Collins is funny without being silly, moving without being silly, and brainy without being silly.”

The former US Poet Laureate and Guggenheim fellow has written several books of poetry and is considered one of the finest living poets in the world. Collins is also wildly popular, and both serious and light readers have rewarded him with acclaim and book sales.

Collins works against the most common tropes that people assign poetry. Instead of layering his verse with various levels of analysis, he focuses more on producing a pleasurable experience for those who are at the very least willing to engage with his work. Of course, Collins will include obscure references and conventional imagery, but these will always play second fiddle to the personal understanding you should be gaining from his work.

One of the best things about Collins’ poetry is that you don’t need to be an erudite scholar to write like him. Also, you probably won’t need to change your writing style. Collins writes very conversationally, as though he’s sitting across from you with a fresh cup of hot cocoa. Let’s dig into the details.

1. Begin with your life experience, be it with a funny thought or a description of daily life.


If you want to bring your listener to “another place”, don’t just assume they can be easily transported there. Words come first. Like so many others, his poem “I Ask You” places us in a regular setting instead of a fantastically-improbable locale:

What scene would I rather be enveloped in

than this one,

an ordinary night at the kitchen table,

at ease in a box of floral wallpaper,

white cabinets full of glass,

the telephone silent,

a pen titled in the back of my hand

But poetry should be transcendent, right? What’s so important about sitting at a table? Collins doesn’t deny that poetry is powerful, but his verse reflects what is truly important to him. The description of material goods (cabinets, wallpaper, a telephone) reminds us that the things around us shouldn’t define our peace and understanding.

2. Don’t take words–and the fantastical images they create–for granted.

The mythical heroes of the past dealt with many of the same daily problems we deal with, but that doesn’t mean that we are doomed to be ordinary. Take the poem “Reaper” as an example. The image of the man with a scythe has historically been applied by poets as a symbol of death, but Collins reduces the myth to quotidian terms:

As I drove north along a country road

on a bright spring morning

I caught the look of a man on the roadside

who was carrying an enormous scythe on his shoulder.

He was not wearing a long black cloak

with a hood to conceal his skull-

rather a torn white tee-shirt

and a pair of loose khaki trousers.

While the first stanza establishes the image, the second turns it on its head. But just because the white tee-shirt and khaki pants are not “serious” doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. Rather, Collins wants the reader to think about death, but as a such a fearful thing. Death is a regular part of daily life, and that is itself a reason to appreciate life even more, as he suggests with the last stanza:

And there was nothing to do

but keep driving, turn off the radio,

and notice how white the houses were,

how red the barns, and green the sloping fields.

In a sense, all you can do is live.

3. The conclusion of your poem should form like a musical canon.


If your piece is about shoveling, then you should describe both the physical and emotional toll it takes. But at the end, you should express, without being too explicit, what lesson or message or philosophy we can take from daily life. “Romanticism”, a poem from his book “The Art of Drowning”, depicts the narrator looking at old books.

There are the sick rooms of the nineteenth century

and the faces of the dead in photographs.

There are the symphonic forests of Germany

with dark brooks running through them

and rocks for the distraught to lay their heads.

He makes fun of the melodrama and the elevated flavor of Romantic poetry, but also makes it clear that he’s looking into artifacts from the distant past. But then the narrator goes on to describe someone he loves, and the “look of the table/you rose from only moments ago”. Collins then takes elements from the external and the personal, and concludes with an image of

a warm run of beach where your shadow

might have reached forever down the sand

in the last glow of daylight.

4. Don’t just use irony to be funny. Use irony to tell us about the foibles of the human condition, about our daily relationship with our flaws and about our willingness to be transcend the mundanity of daily life.


Satire and humor writing are not simply about getting a laugh, and Collins knows this. Rather, writers have always used humor as a way to reveal the true nature of one’s character. The daintiest aristocrat is a boor. The know-it-all doesn’t know the first thing about facing adversity. Consider his poem, “Bereft”, which deals with the universal theme of death:

I liked listening to you today at lunch

as you talked about the dead,

the lucky dead you called them,

citing their freedom from rent and furniture

The first stanza approached death from an ironic perspective, but Collins has a point. Collins-the-narrator unravels the irony of calling the dead ‘lucky’ but pointing out that the bad things in life really aren’t that bad. Rather, we can’t see death as something that is either good or bad, because the person who experiences it experiences a nothing so absolute, we can’t even fathom it.

5. Understand that it is our foolishness that make us wiser, and at time it is our vices that make us beautiful.


What Collins teaches us through his poetry is that sometimes we need to give in to our true nature to learn about ourselves. It’s ironic when someone who denies their true self must face that person in the end. Consider his ode to one of his former vices, “The Best Cigarette”. It begins like so:

There are many that I miss

having sent my last one out a car window

sparking along the road one night, years ago.

Obviously nostalgic, Collins slowly transforms images of pleasure into images of uncertainty. In the fourth stanza, he compares his smoking to the use of steam and coal during the industrial revolution.

Then I would be my own locomotive,

trailing behind me as I returned to work

little puffs of smoke,

indicators of progress,

signs of industry and thought,

the signal that told the nineteenth century

it was moving forward.

Collins’ uses the locomotive image for a very specific purpose. While he assumes that the poetry brought him progress, he also implies that his progress came at a price, that price being his health. Collins also implies that cigarettes helped him progress, but he can’t remain stuck in the past.

How to build your characters in six easy steps

By Nat Leblanc

Breville Espresso Machine

So you’ve got a great idea for a novel or story that you’re DYING to tell. The premise is profound, the symbolism is subtle, and the big reveal at the end is going to blow your readers’ minds. You throw together an outline and show it to an editor friend. They read over it and turn to you.

“Why do I care about these people? What do they want?”

“But the story!” you argue moronically, having not yet read this article, “The story is brilliant, right? The premise is great, I know it is!”

Your editor friend throws the draft to the ground. “Maybe,” he says, lighting a cigarette and staring into the distance, “But it didn’t feel like the characters cared, so why should I have cared? Don’t ever contact me again.”

A well thought-out and relatable character can allow a reader to enter bizarre and alien worlds without as much as a blink. Whether that’s the hapless bumbling of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Arthur Dent as he’s flung around the galaxy or the emotional turmoil that Superman feels knowing that he can never be truly human, being able to identify with a character in some way gives readers an emotional connection to your story that makes them care about what you are writing. Your plot twist might be brilliant, but compelling characters are what keep readers invested until then. So how do you write a compelling and interesting character? You can sit down at a keyboard and hope that one jumps onto the screen fully-formed as you type, or you can make a character sketch.

A good character sketch isn’t just a description of a character’s physical attributes or likes and dislikes. A character sketch is meant to tie them into the story, explain what conflicts they have to encounter, why they are conflicts and how they are going to react to them. It doesn’t just plop the character into a fully formed world, it explains how the world formed the character and how the character is forming the world. It explains what role your character takes in the world, and how they will interact with other characters in other roles.

  1. Character name and description of role



The first thing we need is the character’s name and the description of their role. By role, I mean protagonist, antagonist, hero/heroine, villain, friend, etc. If you have multiple protagonists or antagonists, explain their connection to the story or other characters. How is this secondary protagonist tied to the first antagonist? Where did they meet? Keep these simple and short. If the character is another character’s brother, that’s all we need to know right now.

  1. How the world views them



If your character exists in a world with other people in it, chances are that that world has opinions of your character. How would a casual acquaintance describe your character? How would the police describe your character’s mannerisms? How would a random person at the bar describe your character? This is where you really try to separate yourself from your character and see them from an outsider’s perspective. Try to think up a list of single-word adjectives to describe your character. This is usually how we figure out how your character will react to conflict in the story. Someone who is described as “volatile” will likely not react kindly to someone bumping into them on the street, while someone described as “gentle” will likely not punch someone’s teeth out for spilling a beer on them.

  1. How they view themselves



Anybody who’s taken a first year psychology course is familiar with the Looking Glass Theory: “We view ourselves as we believe others view us.” How would your characters describe themselves? Would they say that they are lonely? In love? Are they satisfied with their life? Could there be something more? This section is usually where we define the conflict that your character will have to face in your story. If they are lonely, they will likely be trying to deal with that loneliness. If they are happy, they will probably be trying to enjoy or maintain that happiness. Everybody just wants a little satisfaction, and stories are driven by somebody trying to find that satisfaction or having it taken away from them.

  1. Abilities and Skills


(stack exchange)

This works with numbers 2 and 3 to figure out how your characters will deal with conflict in the story. If your character is an expert in ju-jitsu and is described as fiercely loyal, we can put two and two together if somebody is roughing up their best friend. This creates solid forward momentum in your story that can be used to propel us from one plot point to the next. If your character needs to make a million dollars in a week, we need to know how their skills are going to help them get those million dollars. Are they a lazy college drop-out who’s a gifted programmer? Or maybe they’re the most skilled bank-robber there’s ever been, but they’re retired. This is also important as it creates a back story for your characters that may actively (or retroactively) influence the way that the other characters see them.

  1. Building up personality 



What aspects of the world display the aspects of your character that you’ve described up until now? This is where we get more specific in describing your character and the internal conflict your character faces. Quickly jot down 5 elements of your character’s life or incidents in the story that will serve to accentuate the already established characteristics of their personality. If your character is stupid or lazy, have them fail a test at school. If your character is a sad, explain the incidents that made them sad. Try and think of things both overt and subtle that will make your reader think “Oh, okay. This shows that this character is like this.”

b) Compare/contrast – What aspects of the world balance out against your character’s personality? This is where we start looking at external conflicts that your character faces with the world. If your character is a miserable misanthrope, how are they interacting with the chipper newspaper vendor that they have to talk to every day? If your characters hate themselves, how do they feel about the villain’s arrogance? Comparing and contrasting elements of your character’s personality to the opposing elements of the world or characters around them should be a way of highlighting who your character is.

6. Symbolism 



These are aspects of your character that serve your character’s personality through an existing or established association. They can be physical, such as a scar or a trinket, or they can be non-physical, like a melody or a verbal tic. They can be unique to the character or shared by another. They serve as habitual reminders of who this character is and what they represent. Think of Harry Potter’s lightning scar, Sam Spade’s fedora and trench coat, Ahab’s peg-leg, or Holden Caulfield’s repeated use of the term “phonies.” You can mention them in passing or you can refer to them overtly and directly. Either way, they need to be tied to and associated with your character and their personality traits.

Remember that the goal of this outline isn’t to create a character for the purpose of shoe-horning into an existing story. The goal of a character sketch is to create a crib sheet that can be used as a reference to figure out how your character would react in a variety of situations. It should be vague enough that any other writer would be able to take it and write a story involving your character, but specific enough that you would still be able to see elements of the character in any story written around the sketch.