Poetry FAQs: Editing Your Poetry

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TanyaB--one of my friends on Facebook--recently sent me some poetry-related Q's she'd like addressed on the blog. One series (of three) had to do with editing. So, I'm going to list the questions below and try to answer them the best I can. Any blog readers who have a different take are more than welcome to contribute their thoughts in the comments (even if you completely contradict my advice, I'm always open to the possibility of being wrong). :)

Btw, these questions have to do with editing your work.

How do you get started with the editing process?

As far as I'm concerned, the editing process is sometimes going on as early as the actual first draft when I'm deciding what to write. But that said, I often try to just write and let ideas and images come out. When I do this I can sometimes start editing as soon as I finish the draft, but more likely I'll have to let the draft sit for some period of time before revisiting. That period of time could be anywhere from half-an-hour to several weeks (or longer). That's why I copy all my poems down into notebooks--so that I can always revisit old ideas and develop into new pieces if the mood strikes.

There are many things I look for when I revise, but those are based off comments I've received over the years about things I tend to do with my writing. For instance, I try to eliminate the word "it"--unless I can justify its existence. And I prefer active verbs over passive verbs, etc. Also, I read over the poem for rhythm and examine the poem to see if I can give it structure without sacrificing the meaning or flow. And there are many other things--someday I may write a book on them all.

How do you know when it's finished?

A poet friend of mine likes to say that a poem is never finished, and I tend to agree. I mean, look at Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman--it went through the revision process until there was a "deathbed edition." There's no perfect poem; therefore, you can always play around with them. When you can't find anything new to do to the poem, though, it's usually a good time to try submitting it. If it's accepted, great. If it's rejected, the time apart from the poem may give you new ideas on ways to play with it.

Should you hire an editor or just go with your gut?

I think poets need to develop their guts; I also think poets should never hire an editor. In addition, poets are served well by developing relationships with other poets who can help critique their work. And the critiquing should go both ways. The process of thinking about what works and doesn't work in another's poems can be very beneficial if you then look for similar flaws in your own work. And the feedback you receive from other poets will give you the opportunity to defend your poetic decisions or admit that improvements could be made. No matter what, you should thank anyone who volunteers their time to give you feedback--even if it's not an easy pill to swallow.

Hope that was helpful. And if you have additional comments, please share them with everyone in the comments section below--so the whole group can benefit from your insight.

If you happen to have questions of your own you would like to see addressed on the blog, feel free to send 'em my way with "Poetry FAQs" in the subject line to robert.brewer@fwpubs.com. I can't promise I'll answer them all, but I will try to do what I can.