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25 Rules for Editing Poems

So, you’ve drafted a poem and you want to publish it or perhaps even win the Magma Poetry Competition! But, is the poem ready? Could it do with a few edits or a wholesale makeover? Below are a few rules which, if you keep them, will guarantee nothing but might be useful as an early warning system. The first thing is to put the poem in a drawer and forget about it until you can read it with fresh eyes, whether that takes days, weeks or months. And then…

1. You might think with the Beats, “first word best word.” Then you pick up Morrissey’s Autobiography at page 108 and read, “…there is occasionally a strong and unsmiling teenager who often appears in the house“. Better to edit glaring errors before they end up in a published book.
2. Pick out a phrase or sentence or line that constitutes the poem’s emotional core. Can you now cut lines that seem pointless in relation to the core? This is a technique George Szirtes used to great effect during a masterclass at the StAnza International Poetry Festival a few years ago.
3. Your poem has some great phrases. That makes you happy. But do they skirt around the surface of human emotion without really connecting to anything urgent?
4. Does the poem sound like it’s been written by you, or by anyone?
5. If you delete the first line, does that have a material effect on the poem? If you delete the first stanza, does that have a material effect on the poem? Keep deleting until you’re left with the poem. Or until you’re without a poem.
6. The opening two or three lines set the poem’s mood and tone, even if you consciously subvert them later on. Check there is consistency. Or deliberate inconsistency.
7. Take away the line-breaks. What difference does it make? If it makes little difference, you have work to do.
8. Are couplets right for this poem? Or just a habit?
9. You may have heard it said, “Draft while drunk, but revise while sober.” Consider whether “revise while drunk” is better (even in a metaphorical sense).
10. Don’t trust your “inner voice” unless it’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.
11. The sensible word is probably the wrong word. The crazy, outlandish word may be evidence that you’re clutching at straws.
12. Where does the poem sit on the spectrum from Affect to Effect? Is it where you want it?
13. Every word, every semi-colon, every decision, is important; every change you make might necessitate a change elsewhere in the poem. Don’t lose sight of the whole when attending to the particular.
14. If you feel a vigorous reluctance to strike out a phrase, you need to argue vigorously with that reluctance.
15. Consider the poem’s “truth”. Not the literal facts (although those may be important at times) but the emotional resonance. Is the emotion genuine or just received wisdom?
16. Are any of your lines memorable? If not, has the poem-as-a-whole done enough to withstand the amnesia?
17. The long, impressive word is not always better than the short, subtle word.
18. ‘Plain’ language can be an excuse for lack of imagination.
19. Consider your adjectives and adverbs individually. Are any redundant?
20. Consider the lack of adjectives and adverbs. Is this evidence of effective concision, or a dull, grey palette?
21. Have you conveyed anything in the poem that hasn’t been conveyed millions of times before?
22. Can you summarise the poem adequately? If so, be wary of the poem.
23. Is your ending an effective and imaginative response to the poem’s tension or simply an easy (but cleverly disguised) retreat from it?
24. “Images can be sly ways of escaping from a poem” – Robert Bly, writing to Tomas Tranströmer, from Airmail.
25. If you’re stuck, take a walk for at least a mile. Concentrate on the moment, not on the poem. Give the unconscious room to work.

And, of course, it goes without saying that good poets are always ready to break rules whenever a poem demands it.

This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. This is excellent advice. I was given similar precepts on editing by a relatively successful (at the time) author and English professor who was a deep and close friend of mine. Essentially, (i ) Be your own worst critic (ii) A poem is only as good as you want it to be.(iii) Edit. Constantly edit (iv) Be constantly asking what is that line, that word doing? (v) Have you finished? Then again ‘from the top’.

    Also, listen to advice and comments from others – even if you don’t use it. One thing on this I find constantly useful – because poems these days tend to end up on a computer it is very easy to try changes that people have suggested on your poetry. Be open to do that, you will find (I think) with me that their suggestions often improve your poem. I also find it handy to save earlier versions of the poem in the same folder. If you decide, for whatever reason, that an edit was an edit too far it is easy to go back.

    And for the put the poem away, I find that once written a poem can take several months, even years, to finally get to a state I feel happy-ish with it. I am constantly revising and editing – looking to say things better, occasionally more expansively but almost always more economically. And I cannot agree too mjuch with what is said about adjectives and adverbs – one of most common errors is to use too many of these so the poem becomes just padding with maybe a good idea at the core which you almost lose.

    Anyway, it is excellent advice given above.

  2. This now printed and pinned up on the board above the computer at eye level just below the note that says READ READ READ

  3. Great information! Leaving a poem for a while often solves a sticking point. Keeping first drafts is important so the fresh spark can be re-visited. Sometimes I reverse poems to find unnecessary lines.

  4. I’m surprised the rules didn’t include “No. 26 End a line on a word that has strength rather than of as, the, for, an, in etc.” But maybe 25 rules are enough. Even Elmore Leonard wrote only ten rules and that was for the huge subject of writing fiction – though it’s a wonderful handbook for writers of anything. Now back to the article: fyi if your verbs are doing their job you shouldn’t often need an adverb. Put the poem in a drawer is a good idea. If only more poets did that.

  5. Thank you. Most of these rules are subtle and interesting. For poetry writing is a subtle and subjective affair and there is no black and white rules about it.
    However, the last one which is not a rule, proves the opposite – I quote: “And of course it goes without saying that good poets are always ready to break rules whenever a poem demands it.” We need a face on either side of our head.
    I will keep this wisdom in my heart if not in front of my eyes.
    PS To remark on Joanna Kettle I might say that writing fiction is a holiday compared to writing good poetry.

  6. I am very suspicious of anybody who refers to writing anything they wish to be read, understood and enjoyed by other people, as a holiday even as a comparison. Some of us, by nature, are sprinters and some of us run marathons. Neither task is harder or easier than the other, just different. Having said that some people do find the holiday experience tiring, boring and disappointing – and longer than they wanted.

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