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How to Write a Haiku


A haiku is a short form of poetry that originated in Japan and evolved over the years. It generally consists of three lines that do not rhyme, and a haiku is commonly associated with evoking strong imagery, particularly with subjects of nature and the seasons, though this is not a hard and fast rule for writing this type of poetry. One thing that most classic and modern haikus have in common is their moment of insight—the driving force behind the poem, typically in association with the natural world.

The haiku was started in Japan from a popular form of poetry called renga, which began in the thirteenth century. This is when two or more poets would work collaboratively on a longer poem by writing lines back and forth. These poems began with an intro called hokku, which was a short verse that contained a structure of sounds similar to what makes up today's haiku.

By the sixteenth century, poets experimented with hokku on their own, leaving out the collaboration with another writer, and by the nineteenth century the haiku became a recognized and popular form of poetry. It then spread beyond Japan, with its parameters differing slightly over the years, and is quite prevalent in the modern day of poetry with several infamous haikus that have been created over the years and new ones emerging as the form is still practiced regularly.

The typical structure of a haiku is three lines. The first and last lines contain five syllables while the middle line contains seven, broken down as follows:

First line: 5
Second line: 7
Third line: 5

This is known as the five-seven-five structure. Although less common, some poems are considered haikus even if they do not follow this specific format and syllable count as long as the poem is made up of short lines that don't follow a rhyming scheme and the imagery of nature is strong. When it comes down to it, a haiku is about much more than simply the number of syllables. While this is the basis, there are several aspects that make up this type of poetry, the first of which is usually an emphasis on the natural world in some way and any correlating images, as well as a moment of insight evoked through this imagery. The break in the lines should also aim to compare the differing images, creating a "before and after" for that moment of insight.

With this format in mind, there are a few steps to refer to that could make for stronger haiku writing.

Determine haiku style

More often than not, you will choose to write your haiku in the five-seven-five format across three lines. This is because this is the most common style in English writing. It is when the haiku is written in a different language (for instance where it originated in Japan) that the syllables and lines don't translate in the same way and therefore would be styled differently. However, many poets will still choose to vary the syllables in each of the lines, differing from the original format but the core of the haiku style will remain the same aside from syllables per line. There should still always be short, succinct lines that do not rhyme, and a juxtaposition to create insight into the subject.

Decide on subject matter

Writing with themes of nature in mind is most common when it comes to haikus, and aside from line and syllable count (and moment of insight) it is usually the catalyst for a haiku. There is also often a word used somewhere in the haiku that has to do with a season. For instance, the use of words like "snow" or "blossoms" to draw the reader's attention to it being a winter or spring setting. These words make it easy to picture as they are clear imagery. Think about the small details found within nature and what you'd like to express, whether metaphorically or not, and always aim to appeal to the senses. For instance, maybe you can describe the smell of a forest in a new and unique way, or perhaps the way a bird's feathers look from a differing perspective than what has been expressed before. Writing should always be sensory, but especially when it comes to writing about nature and with such a limited number of words and syllables.

Use short words and phrases that appeal to the senses

All writing should appeal to the five senses as often as possible. In a haiku, short phrases are needed to accomplish this. Words don't necessarily have to be short, but since there are so few syllables, you might not want to use a whole line for one word only unless it is very intentional to suit the imagery and message of the poem. Think of short descriptions of natural imagery and see if you can find a message within the words. A good practice is to sit silently in nature or use a photograph as a prompt and meditate on what words come to mind.


There are no standard rules about punctuation in haikus, but it should be used strategically and intentionally, just as with word choice. Every element of poetry is extremely intentional, but even more so as the work becomes shorter. When it comes to punctuation in a haiku, the most popular one used is the em dash(—). This is what separates two ideas within the poem to create the before and after that leads to greater insight about the subject. An em dash is certainly not required in a haiku, nor is any punctuation at all, and you could even use different punctuation altogether as it suits your word choice, line breaks, and message.

Kireji: the "cutting word"

Haikus commonly contain a "cutting word" which is called a kireji. These work for the rhythm of the poem when the juxtaposition occurs. It is usually used to create a before and after within the piece. For instance, the world was a certain way before or the poet saw it a certain way, then comes the cutting word to make it clear that is no longer the reality. You will see the pattern of cutting words in the examples below.

The a-ha! Moment

A haiku almost always aims to bring forth a new perspective or clarity about the subject matter or metaphor through nature—the "a-ha!" moment. There is typically a before and after where a sort of epiphany is revealed. This moment in a haiku leads to new insight that the reader may not have previously considered.

Edit and revise

Editing and revision is a very important step in the haiku writing process, especially when adhering to the five-seven-five structure. It is essential that you do not allow the limitations of the format to impede the creative process. When you sit and observe nature silently or conjure images of your subject matter, you should aim to write freely with only the message you want to convey in mind. You will refine this afterward to fit the format of a haiku, possibly changing word choice, cutting or adding words, rearranging lines, and so on. Remember to write freely and creatively before editing with a more scientific eye.

Read your haiku aloud

As another step of the editing process, it is tremendously helpful to read your poem out loud. This will assist with the rhythm of your words and all the elements you have included in the haiku and assess whether they are hitting the mark or not. For instance, is your "cutting word" doing the job it is supposed to and creating that dramatic pause for the "a-ha!" moment to reveal itself?

Finally, read haikus for inspiration

When it comes to writing, the number one rule to improve is always READ! So, since you will be writing a haiku, one way to become familiar with the form and find inspiration is through reading classic haikus by renowned poets.

Below are a few classic and modern haiku examples:

I didn't know the names
of the flowers?now
my garden is gone.
—Allen Ginsberg

Frigid winter night—
even the thieves stay at home,
except for those two.
—Billy Collins

A caterpillar,
this deep in fall—
still not a butterfly.
—Matsuo Basho

First autumn morning:
the mirror I stare into
shows my father's face.
—Murakami Kijo

Remember, don't overthink a haiku too much since there do tend to be more rules with this form of poetry. Getting bogged down in the syllable and line count can sometimes hinder the creative process. So, think about what it is you want to say first and make it fit the format later once the idea has emerged. With this in mind, Mildred Rose expressed this very idea in a haiku of her own:

while she counts
syllables, the haiku
slips away
—Mildred Rose

Header image by Christian Joudrey.

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