How to Edit Poetry
Editing is often underappreciated, but it is a skill that every poet should possess. No one has ever produced the best poem possible on their first draft, no matter what romantic notions we have of the poet as a great genius auteur. Poetry takes work; so how do we find out how to edit a poem and put in that work?
I would recommend every poet read endlessly. You will never run out of poetry to read and study. Look at what you like, the way other poets build an image, their voice, the way they rhyme or don’t. To understand poetry is to understand the tools of sculpting poetry and to learn when a scalpel is more suitable than a hammer.
It’s important to understand that you will never be able to edit someone else’s work perfectly. Just as we are unique as people, our approach to poetry comes from a different place. This also means that another poet or editor can only offer opinion on your work, they cannot decide what it should be. The job of the editor is to polish a poem, to make what exists on the page sparkle brighter than it did before.
Now we begin the process of editing.
In my practice, a poem begins as notes. Hastily written and often inconsistent with each other, these notes purely serve to fuel my exploration of the moment later when I have time to digest what has unfolded. When I later look at those notes, I look for patterns and stories. Have I come back to an idea multiple times? If so, that’s probably the poem I want to be writing.
I would recommend highlighting all the images you have built that don’t serve the theme. At this stage don’t cut them, just put them aside; you may find some of them fit once you work through the rest of the piece.
Before touching a poem and making changes, read the work twice. Are there any bits you don’t like? This isn’t a technical matter, this is gut instinct. Make note of them and move on.
Next, consider your story. Is there a narrative or a passing of time? Does anything appear out of sequence? Do you leave an image only to return later on? Remember, we can move whole sections of a piece. A story doesn’t have to be a huge plot, it can be the passing of a droplet of water on a leaf or it could be the bus journey home.
Now we look at the first four lines and the last four lines. Focus efforts into those points. Do the beginning and end of a poem work together? Do they contrast or build the same image?
Even a great poet will occasionally find that their original intro can be cut and they have instead written their way up to the poem, in the same way we don’t begin a run in full sprint. I have heard this called the launch pad, or scaffolding or frame. Get rid of it. It is not the poem, it is what you—the poet—needed to write in order to reach the poem.
At this stage the poem has had weak points highlighted and some of its bones shifted about, so you can begin cutting. Have you changed your mind on the points you initially didn’t like? Have they gained new meaning through your focus on narrative? If not, kill them. Place them in a graveyard of unused poetry and perhaps, one day, you will rework them into something; for now, for this poem, they aren’t needed.
You can now look through your images. Are their points where you haven’t fully conveyed the reality of the subject? Can you use metaphor to better illustrate yourself? Poetry is often visual and bringing that element up a notch can be the difference between a good poem and a competition winning piece. A great exercise is to focus in on a single image and rewrite it in five ways. If any of these serve the poem better, replace them.
Next consider the language. Have you used a complex word when a simpler word would be better? Poetry is about connection, it’s not about showing off your vocabulary. If you can say the same thing with easier words, then the easier words are often the right words (unless the point is to subvert connection.) Make these changes and reread the poem.
Finally, look at line length. I’m a big fan of keeping ideas contained on a line. I dislike enjambment (the cutting of a line) when it doesn’t serve a purpose. In a good poem, whether all the lines roughly fit the same length or not, each should work as a self-contained idea, as well as contributing to the overall stanza or poem.
Now, this is only meant as a rough guide to the editing process. There are further technicalities you could delve into, like hunting for stressed or unstressed syllables, or committing to a form. As you work through the editorial process, you will find yourself developing habits and techniques that are unique to yourself, just as with writing. The biggest challenge is to know when to put those techniques into practice.
Some poetry needs a hammer to violently deconstruct everything, to allow you to rebuild from the rubble. Other pieces need a scalpel to precisely extract the problems growing within the lines. A great editor knows the difference.
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© 2018 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.