In my experience, four key elements stand in the way of people expressing themselves in writing: grammar, vocabulary, honesty and effort. Here are some suggestions for getting past these barriers.
Learning and practicing the basic rules of grammar and style is a key to self expression. William Strunk’s excellent guide to grammar can be found free on the web at: http://www.bartleby.com/141/. This is an older, public domain version of the book The Elements of Style. The book is about as concise and inexpensive a guide to grammar as you can find. Buy it, read it, learn it, live it. There are many more guides, most of them more detailed and explanatory. I have at least a half a dozen different grammar guides, but as the occasional email points out, I still make mistakes.
The second barrier to self expression is vocabulary. I don’t mean that you need to know hundreds of four-syllable words in order to express yourself (such as using the word prioritize when you mean rank). Knowing the right word to express your thought, however, is an essential element of good writing. Most people think a thesaurus is a good way to build their vocabulary, but frequently a thesaurus can lead you down the wrong path. Just because two words have a similar meaning does not mean they have an identical meaning. It is far more important to read a dictionary than a thesaurus. Look up words, even words you think you know, and pay attention to the definitions. An excellent dictionary to buy is The American Heritage Dictionary. I’m not a big fan of Webster’s Dictionaries; most of their definitions seem incomplete to me. The king of all dictionaries is the Oxford English Dictionary. It is the most in-depth and comprehensive dictionary in the history of man and can take up an entire bookshelf. Visit your local library if you can’t afford a copy.
While the first two barriers to self expression are technical, the third is psychological. Self expression requires a level of honesty and fearlessness that most people aren’t used to. To begin with, you need to know what your feelings are. Once you know what they are, you need to be brave enough to put them on paper. Some people never achieve that level of honesty. One way to work on breaking down barriers is to try automatic writing. Sit down with a notebook or at your computer and write whatever comes to mind, as quickly as possible. Do not edit yourself and do not try to control what goes onto the paper. You can do this for increments of five to ten minutes or longer. Personally, I find that I don’t get a good automatic flow going until I’ve been at it for over fifteen minutes.
Writing well requires hard work. There is no easy way around this. The more frequently you write and edit, the better you will get at it. Most professionals spend hours a day writing and revising their work. If your goal is to become adept at expressing yourself, especially through poetry, you need to understand that you won’t automatically be perfect at it. Even after years of practice, not everything you write will be worth reading. The key is to keep writing. The more writing experience you have, the more you’ll be able to take advantage of inspiration when it does strike.
One of the most inspirational books I’ve ever read about writing is If You Want to Write by the late Brenda Ueland. When I read this book, I am often so inspired that I start writing again after reading only a couple paragraphs.