Editing Poetry

After managing my “blog-post-a-day-January” (hurrah! – and a huge sense of relief) I skipped off for a few days’ work and events; then a weekend in the Yorkshire Dales with writing friends for exercises, critiques, contemplations – and fun; then back to find myself unexpectedly called in to cover someone’s sick leave in the day job (meh).

A day off – at last – today so I am critiquing Malvern Writers’ Circle’s Young Writer of the Year poems – joyful excitement.

However, so far all of those I’ve read would benefit from editing. Some are lovely but none so fabulous that a word here (usually cut rather than added) or an extra comma there, would not add to the overall effect.

Editing is not a sign of poor writing – quite the converse. Most of us sketch ideas, then add shading and, later – sometimes months later – complete the poem. Or we over-write, scribbling all the ideas that tie-in to our concept.

Here are some ideas that may help:

Read your poem. Leave it a few days then re-read it. Change it to a different font and/or print it out: read it again. Read it aloud. Read it aloud several times. Imagine your favourite actor reading it; how would you feel?

What is it about? It may be a straightforward “about” or it may have another meaning – or several – as well. Usually poems are pretty focussed on their “about(s)”, real and metaphorical.

Does it make sense overall? Does each sentence, phrase and line make sense?

What “voice” is the poem in? Is it consistent? If you have chosen a particular narrator, why? Is their voice consistent? Is the emotional tone right for each passage?

What tense have you chosen? Why? If it’s in present, try past – or even future. Is tense consistent throughout? If you change tense is there a reason?

Is every word essential? Try cutting words (or phrases or even entire lines) to see if the poem still works. Often, a poem may be MORE powerful with fewer words.

Is your title exciting? Will it intrigue me, make me eager to read on? Proof-read your title.

Occasionally I meet people who say, ‘Oh no, I never edit. Once it’s written, it’s perfect.’ That’s up to them. All I can say is that I don’t know of ANY professional writers who do not revise, edit, rewrite and/or hone their work. Yes, it is possible to over-edit, to kill a lively poem (save versions, then you can go back!).

Finally, it’s your poem, so you decide what you want. Do listen to good advice, do try ideas, but don’t be swayed if then don’t add to your poem. For example, some people become fixed on form, but perfect meter does not necessarily make the most memorable poetry – Blake’s Tyger is a great example of breaking meter to make impact.

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7 Responses to Editing Poetry

  1. Ron says:

    Making sense is overrated :p That’s all I’ve got.

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  5. Thanks for this post – I think readers of my dreadful poems will concur!
    I rarely edit, not because they’re perfect, but because I usually don’t have time, and then I find if I do I’m not in the same head place as when I first wrote it. Do you have any books recommendations for a novice who needs to improve?

  6. Myfanwy Fox says:

    Hi Jane, (just been exploring your blog – makes me feel worryingly stalker-ish; still not used to this blogging thing). Poems are for all kinds of reasons and I enjoyed yours on the ‘yummy mummy’ moniker. Will look out for more.

    Sadly, I have bugger-all accademic background in poetry or any kind of literary learning so I’m not too good on the advice front. I was a biologist till I sprogged then gave up when I realised San Fransisco child care costs would eat my entire research assistant paycheck (sic). Poetry started accidentally or incidentally for me a few years ago but I love it now.

    I suppose my suggestion would be to read lots and LOTS of poetry (the Grauniad has a weekly poem with analysis, for example) and see what grabs you. Read different sources – maybe see a few spoken word events (slams *can* be fun but aren’t necessarily highest quality of poetry always). There *are* books on form and so on but there are also good basic guides for free on line. Take all “you must”s with a pinch of salt; poetry “experts” can be geeky and cliquey and freak-out far too easily. (And some slip into crap rap when replying on blogs, tch.)

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