Tips for self-editing your poetry:
- Edit your poem several times. After each edit, put the poem away and let it percolate in your mind. Tinker with it over a period of time.
- Figure out which phrase or sentence or line is the emotional core of the poem. Then go through the entire poem and cut out anything that isn’t directly related to that core. The emotional core should have a sense of urgency, of deep importance; make sure everything in the poem reflects and shares that heart of the poem.
- Try deleting each line of the poem. Does the poem still stand strong without it? Then there’s a good chance it should be cut. The same thing goes with stanzas. Keep deleting till you’ve reached the true heart of the poem–or until the poem no longer exists. Not every poem is meant to be published, after all.
- What tone and mood are you trying to create? Is it set within the first couple lines or so? Does it flow consistently through the poem?
- Play around with the line breaks. Try different line breaks. Which ones are most effective? Try taking out all the line breaks and read it in prose format. Have you written a poem or a prose piece? Your line breaks are meant to guide your reader to the heart, the tone and mood, the voice you are trying to create. Are they doing that successfully?
- Is the poetic form you have chosen, right for this particular poem? Just because you happen to prefer a particular form doesn’t mean that it is the best way to express what you are trying to share. Actually try rewriting the poem in another form you think might also be effective. Which form works best? Are you surprised?
- Have you used the best words, the perfect words? Are any of your words too “sensible” or too plain or imprecise? Have you used certain words simply for their shock value? When using words you chose from the thesaurus, did you first look them up in the dictionary to make sure they express exactly what you mean? Even if they do, do they “sound right” in the poem? Do they fit with the flow, with your voice, with the situation? Or do they stick out like a sore thumb, even if their meaning is right? Short, subtle words can be more effective than long, impressive words. Remember, “sound” and “emotion” are so important in poetry.
- Check your punctuation very carefully. Try different punctuation marks. Poetry is about “sound” so when you choose punctuation, read aloud with the intonation and spacing that punctuation suggests. Some writers think poetry is best without punctuation–and it can be effective that way, but in that case, line breaks and wording become even more important. Every decision you make about wording, punctuation marks, line breaks, formatting, imagery–every tiny decision you make about your poem is important. Every change you make may require another change somewhere else in the poem. Pay attention to both the whole and the particulars. They must fit together. Do they?
- Does your poem resonate with readers? What do your beta readers tell you? (You do have beta readers, don’t you?) What do you see in people’s faces, hear in their voices, read in their body language when you listen to them read your poems aloud? Do they personally relate to the truth and emotion you’re trying to share? Have you gone deep and genuine, or are you just parroting commonly accepted ideas and wisdom? One poem that really reaches out from the writer and connects with the reader/listener is worth more than a thousand slap-dash poems.
- Are some of your lines less memorable than others? Are there “blah” parts in among the “gems?” Can you cut those blah parts without the poem really losing anything? If those parts are needed, how can you make them more memorable? And is the poem, as a whole, memorable? If not, how can you improve? Hint: What are you saying that is unique, that expresses your ideas/topic in a way that is somehow yours alone, a way that is fresh and new? How can you write a poem that isn’t the “same old, same old” as a million other poems?
- Summarise your poem into one sentence, and then into one word or one phrase. Can you do that? If not, you probably need to rewrite it, get to the core, cut out the extraneous material.
- Have you “broken rules” because the poem really requires it? Or just to break the rules? When you “break the rules” of the poetic form you’ve chosen, does it work? Is it effective? Would it work just as well if you didn’t break the rules? What exact purpose does the “rule breaking” serve in the poem?
- Consider your title–does it contain important clues for understanding the poem? Since poems are so succinct, the title can be very important. It should contain the “core” you are aiming for.
- As you read your poem aloud, listen for rhythm, flow, and sound. Are there any hard sounds (or soft ones) that stick out and interrupt? Are there just the right amount of syllables to carry the rhythm? Have you used alliteration, assonance and consonance?
- Try posting various versions of your poem on sites where you can get input from the community, and/or join a local poetry writers group which offers good critiquing, training … and, of course, a sense of community!
- If you feel dissatisfied with the way your poem is developing, but you still want to express that idea, put it away, let it rest for a few days (or longer), and then get out a fresh sheet of paper and start over again, trying to write it in a different way. You may end up doing this a few times–each time will bring you new insights and improve your communication.
- Think about the same things you consider when editing prose–passive and active verse, descriptive words, concise language, fresh imagery, focus on your core theme, use of techniques like alliteration, and so on.
- When you’ve said what you started out to say, stop. Don’t ramble on. Finish where it ends well.
- Do any of your poetic elements (rhyme, similes, alliteration, rhythm/beat) feel forced? Fix that!
- Is your poem well balanced and organised? Do the stanzas or other forms work? Does the form of your poem fit your intention for it?
Don’t forget to check out Part 1 in this series: Tips for building your poetry skills
What other poetry writing tips would you like to share?
We’d love to hear them! Please add them to the comments 🙂