5 Tips for Organizing Poetry Chapbook Manuscripts

Publish date:

With another November PAD Chapbook Challenge about to start, I thought I'd share some tips I've picked up over the years on assembling poetry collections, especially chapbook-sized manuscripts. These tips aren't for formatting or promoting--just some food for thought on organizing the poems.

Here are five tips for organizing a poetry chapbook:

  1. Best poems. In this chapbook manuscript, the poems are ordered sequentially from "best" poem to "least best" poem in the collection. While poets should always put their best foot forward in a poetry collection, especially with the first poem in the collection, ordering strictly on "best to least best" can miss opportunities to have the poems communicate with each other.
  2. Themed poems. Many of the most successful chapbook collections merge great poems with a unified theme, which could be a specific topic (parenting poems, baseball poems, etc.) or even a poetic form (sonnets, villanelles, etc.). When done well, themed chapbooks can make for a great reading experience on both a poem-by-poem level and for the collection as a whole.
  3. Chronological poems. For this type of chapbook, the poet organizes poems in the chronological order that the poems were written and/or published. This format is often employed in "collected works" and anthologies, which is probably where some poets get the idea to use on their chapbook. As with the "best poems" collection, this organization can miss opportunities.
  4. Emotional poems. Poems in this collection may not be unified by a theme, but the poems may be organized by emotional range. For example, poems in the beginning of the collection may be optimistic and slowly move toward pessimistic (or the reverse). Organizing off emotion can help a collection feel connected even when it swings from one topic to another.
  5. Linked poems. As with the "emotional poems" collection, this type of organization looks more at links on a poem-to-poem level. Maybe "poem 1" has a line about cold weather and "poem 2" is about New Year's Eve and "poem 3" is about Independence Day and "poem 4" is about fireworks, etc. It's kind of like playing the "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game with your poems.

Bonus tip: The first poem is the most important in the collection. There's no way to get around the fact that the first poem is usually the first poem someone reads, whether by a contest judge or a potential reader of your chapbook. As such, the first poem sets the tone, the stakes, the expectations, etc. No pressure, right? But it can't be overstated that the first poem should be darn good (even if it's not the best of the collection), because that's where everything starts.


Workshop your poetry.Click here to learn more.

Robert Lee Brewer

Robert Lee Brewer


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer's Digest Writing Community and author of two sold out limited edition chapbooks, ENTER and ESCAPE. He's also the author of the still in print full-length collection Solving the World's Problems from Press 53. He's married to the poet Tammy Foster Brewer, who has had two chapbook collections published (Interchangeable Goddesses and No Glass Allowed) and who helps Robert keep track of their five little poets (four boys and one princess/linebacker). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


Find more poetic posts here:

Poetic Forms

Mistress Bradstreet Stanza: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the Mistress Bradstreet stanza, an invented form of John Berryman.


Capital vs. Capitol (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use capital vs. capitol with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.


On Writing to Give Grief Meaning and Write Out of Challenging Situations

Author Lily Dulan explains why writers have to be willing to go to difficult places inside themselves for their writing to make a positive impact on ourselves, others, and the world.


Gerald Brandt: Toeing the Line Between Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Science fiction author Gerald Brandt explains how this new series explores the genre boundary and how he came to find his newest book's focus.


Plot Twist Story Prompts: Moment of Doubt

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character experience a moment of doubt.


Caitlin O'Connell: Finding Connection and Community in Animal Rituals

In this post, Dr. Caitlin O'Connell shares what prompted her to write a book about finding connection and community in animal rituals, what surprised her in the writing process, and much more!


New Agent Alert: Zeynep Sen of WordLink Literary Agency

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Zeynep Sen of WordLink Literary Agency) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.


Mark Henick: On Memory, Healing, and Languishing Projects

Author Mark Henick shares how he was able to turn a successful TEDx talk into a memoir, even when the project didn't come as quickly as he expected.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 553

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a do-over poem.