So you’ve got a lot of poems to edit and you don’t even know where to begin? I can help. Whether you’ve composed many poems in a short period or you’ve got a stack of poems that you’ve been writing for years but never get around to revising, you can edit your poems using these strategies.
- If you originally typed the poem, write it out—double-spaced. A poem that’s typed looks cleaner than a handwritten one. When you’re editing, it’s helpful to not have it look so finished. Even if you handwrote the poem originally, try rewriting it as a double-spaced version to give yourself room to edit and to refamiliarize yourself with the poem. Handwriting allows you to take time with the poem and see what you like, what you want to change, if the poem is missing anything, or if there are any areas you need to cut.
- Go through the poem and underline the concrete nouns (that you can see, touch, taste, hear, or smell) and the strongest/most specific words, phrases and passages. You can do this part with a friend too. Read the poem aloud and then have your friend tell you what language s/he remembers, what lingered and made an impression.
- Circle any words or phrases that you need to replace: clichés, abstract nouns, repeated words, and any vague areas that need to be made more specific.
- Write any notes to yourself in the margins about changes you know you want to make later or areas where you know you haven’t written enough. You can use the strong passages you’ve underlined or the beginning of image or idea that needs developing as writing prompts to expand the poem.
- Check the beginning and ending of the poem. Were you just warming up in the first few lines or stanza(s)? Can you give your poem a stronger start by cutting the beginning? Same thing for the ending. Did the poem end before the writing did? Cut any excess lines or stanza(s): where you were wrapping up, explaining what you’d said before, or trying to figure out how to end. A poem is not an essay for your freshman comp class. Make sure you didn’t do the tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘ em and tell ‘em what you told ‘em phases. All you need is to tell ‘em.
- Make the language cuts and additions—at least the easy ones—and work on word choice. A thesaurus will really help here.
- Type the poem and reread it. Do you see any changes you want to make that you missed in the handwritten version?
- Look for patterns. For instance, are most stanzas about the same number of lines? What do the line breaks look like now that the poem is typed?
- Read the poem out loud. Listen for the rhythm of the poem. Do you have a natural flow that is interrupted by hard sound where you need a soft or a word with extra syllables or not enough? Do you have natural alliteration, assonance, or consonance that you want to develop through word choice? Be sparing as this can quickly turn sing-songy or trite. I particularly love Mary Oliver’s chapter on “Sound” in A Poetry Handbook. This book is a must-have for beginning poets and a good return to fundamentals for more seasoned writers.
- Give your poem a working title. If you titled it when you wrote it, make sure your original still fits.
This is the first editing pass. The function of the above steps is to get you to a point where you can start really crafting your poem and get past the first draft. Once you’ve gone through these, put the poem down for a week (at least) so you can come back to it with fresh eyes.
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I’d love to hear what your tried and true editing strategies are. How do you work with your poems to make them better?
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