How Do You Edit Poetry?
When I was offered this Cut It! feature, I brainstormed a bunch of possible topics and sent them to Nikki, and she said that she loved the idea of a feature on how to edit poetry “because it’s so different.” The majority of creative writing I’ve done since high school has been poetry. But all that means is that I’ve written a fair bit of poetry that hasn’t seen the light of day.
Because I’ve never published and rarely show anyone my poetry, my editing process around it wasn’t exactly refined. But, I’m good at editing other things, so I figured I’d do a tiny case study and share my methods with you. I scoured every place I’ve kept poetry that I’ve written since high school, and found 25 poems to give myself a crash course in editing poetry. Certain poems got tweaked, others got re-written, and others got completely cannibalized and cut down to the tiny shards of decent language that I might use in future work.
Here are a few best practices I learned from editing poetry I wrote as long as 7 years ago and as recently as yesterday.
Get some space.
Before editing anything I usually like to take at least a few days away from it. Poetry is no exception, and is perhaps more served by this approach since we tend to write poetry when we are in the throes of emotion. Some of the poems I worked on for this piece were 5+ years old, but you might need just a few days. Getting some distance from your writing will help you clarify what really is good writing, and what’s just you feeling your feelings.
Read your poems out loud.
Notice where you stumble, where you breathe, or where the rhythm seems awkward, whether there is a set meter or not. Poetry is a relative of song, and is meant to be recited. If it feels awkward to read out loud, do it anyway (just, maybe not in public, yet.)
Be real with yourself about whether slant rhymes, alliteration, or enjambment actually add anything to the substance of the poem. Being overly “clever” with literary devices can make your poem read amateurishly, like a school assignment.
Write another poem.
My wife is a fiction writer, and when they are experiencing writer’s block with their stories, they will write their characters into an alternate universe, a new story. If you love a phrase and it doesn’t fit, write another poem around it. Don’t shoehorn something in because there isn’t another place for it. Make a new place. Poetry is a renewable resource.
Punctuation does matter.
While in many forms of poetry there are no true “rules” governing punctuation use, choosing one mark over another or omitting a mark altogether does change the rhythm of the poem, and sometimes the meaning of a phrase. Decide whether these effects add something to the meaning(s) of your poem or not when you are deciding what marks to use. If you are also a musician, it may be useful to think of punctuation marks like musical notation. They tell you how to recite the poem and how to understand a phrase, just like dynamic markings, rests, fermatas, etc.
Don’t be afraid to make cuts.
My editing practice is rooted in minimalism and clarity. This applies to poems too. Don’t be afraid to cut out whole lines, or even whole stanzas if they don’t add anything to the meaning of the poem. One poem I edited for this feature got cut from 5 to 1 ½ stanzas. If you wind up with only a little bit of good language, write a new poem around that.
You are what you read.
If you really have your heart set on writing a specific form of metered or rhyming poetry, my best advice is to read a metric ton of it while you are compiling or editing your poetry collection. When we read Shakespeare in school, I’d come away from class talking in iambic pentameter using weird contractions. Get the rhythm of your form in your head so that the emphasis and poetic units string themselves together more naturally when you go to write or edit. And especially with structured poetry, seriously, read it out loud.
April Crowley is a freelance writer and editor living in Western Massachusetts. She strives to provide her clients with a holistic writer/editor relationship and deliver flawless writing that clearly expresses ideas in the client’s unique voice. With a minimalist approach, she will help you achieve clarity and maximize the impact of your writing. April loves to work with bloggers, creative writers, entrepreneurs and nonprofit professionals, especially those who are woman-aligned and/or who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. You can follow her on Instagram @editingwithoutego and check out her site and blog at www.editingwithoutego.com.