5 Ways to Revise Poems

My blog spends a lot of time on the creation of poetry, but I haven’t dedicated anything to revision in more than a year. While I’m always writing and revising poetry, I think my recent book deal and subsequent intense editing has inspired me to share a few of the more common editing tricks I employ.

These aren’t the only ways to revise poetry. Rather, they’re a starting place, and I’d love to hear strategies used by other poets.

  1. Search for form. One of the first things I like to do after “finishing” a first draft is to count syllables to see if I’ve written a poem in a certain form. Sometimes, I’ll even do this mid-draft if I get the feeling that a form is establishing itself. By form, I don’t mean traditional forms, though sometimes that can happen. A form could be as simple as 8-syllable lines or a pattern of 7-, 9-, and 5-syllable lines (which happened to me over the weekend). The nice thing about form is that it acts as the skeleton for the poem–the structure that gives shape to the body of the poem.
  2. Look for ways to cut. One quality I love about poetry versus other forms of writing is the genre’s concision. The best way to make a poem concise is to cut out all the extra fat of a poem. This might include prepositions, adjectives, and adverbs. It might also include cutting lines that “explain” what a poem means or is getting at.
  3. Pay attention to line breaks. While every word in your poem should have a purpose, readers place more emphasis on the ends and beginnings of lines–the places where the lines break. For me, I try to find ways to surprise readers here. Of course, every line doesn’t have the potential for enjambment or clever turns of phrase, but every poem I write gets a thorough line break inspection.
  4. Listen for sounds. I mentioned concision as a quality I love about poetry, but the chief quality I love about poetry (and this is showing my own bias) is the musical nature of poetry. When done well, I think poetry–including poetry that doesn’t rhyme–reads (and can be read) as music. As such, I already try to write first drafts with sound in mind, but then I go through the drafts looking for potential end rhymes, internal rhymes, and consonance. For this step, I do read the poem aloud at different times of the day and in different moods (and even voices).
  5. Make things concrete. This step does not involve “spelling out” the meaning of the poem. Instead, I look for any abstract words that made it into the poem (words like “love,” “hate,” and “fear”) and try replacing them with concrete words and images. At times, I even replace concrete words with more specific (or unusual) concrete words.

These ways to revise poems are in a numbered list, but that doesn’t mean I follow this order when revising poetry. Poems evolve and making language concrete may throw off the syllable pattern or create a new pattern. Breaking lines in specific places can affect form as well.

So I often go through these steps several times for each poem I want to submit. After leaving the poem alone for a while, I’ll go through them again–even with poems that have been published. Poets tinker.


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9 thoughts on “5 Ways to Revise Poems

  1. parteverything

    Thanks for the great tips! I love craft lists. Poets need more resources like this. Line breaks are so important in poetry. It’s one of the key elements that separate poems from prose (prose poems aside). So helpful. There’s a piece on the Etched Press blog on another five revision strategies to consider before sending work out into the world. I highly recommend that as well: http://etchedpress.com/blog/how-to-revise-poems/

    Thank you!

  2. De Jackson

    Great advice, Robert.
    And I’m happy to say I find myself doing these regularly, instinctively, especially for the past year or so…largely in part to daily writing practice, including your awesome prompts. Thank you for all you do!

  3. Judy Roney

    Thanks for this information, Robert. I have a problem with revising my poetry. Often when I get through the finished poem is nothing like the original. I get frustrated at the results at times when I lose something I wanted to say. I think organization for me is a key, too. Somehow keeping the original along with the revision.

  4. madcapmaggie

    Robert, a good list.

    I find myself paying attention to the way the poem looks on the page – line length, number of lines per stanza, and to word choice in general, not simply the way the word sounds but the precise meaning.

    Then there are the “start the poem too soon,” and the “beat the user over the head with my point” traps.


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