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We asked poets from all over the world, particularly young poets aged 25 and under, for the advice they’d give to fellow writers. We also picked the brains of some of the wonderful poets who work at the Poetry Society. We were seriously impressed with all the writing wisdom we received from each one of you – and here is Part II of an inspiring selection for every step of the creative process!
Part II is dedicated to editing and redrafting – learning to take a step back and bring out the best in your poem. There are plenty of creative techniques to try, and advice which will help you to be bold with your editorial decisions! For hints and tops about getting into the right mindset for writing your first draft, see Part I..
Editing and redrafting – getting into the habit
Once you’ve written a first draft of your poem, it can be tempting to think it’s finished. But a poem that comes out fully-formed is a rare beast indeed! Practically every poem will benefit from a cool editorial eye being cast over it. When Clare Pollard called for submissions to her feedback sessions, she had this to say about the editing and redrafting process:
The idea of the poet scrawling down perfect poems is a seductive one, and many have played with the idea of a visitation from the muse – the Beats pouring out spontaneous, jazz-like rhythms; Frank O’Hara penning Lunch Poems on his lunch breaks. But the truth is, most poets I know spend weeks and even months getting poems right. Redrafting is part of being a poet. And actually, for many of us, it’s the fun part – the hours spent lost in words, tinkering and experimenting; polishing your ideas to perfection.
Poetry Society team: “I do my best not to kid myself. I’m not writing a poem until I have a complete draft. Which needs to treated with great suspicion. As should the one after that. It may need a hundred more drafts. There is no time scale. It may all happen in a couple of hours or take years.” Maurice, Poetry Review editor
Taking a step back
A big proportion of the poets who responded with their top tips stressed the importance of leaving your poem for a few days, to get some distance from it. Poets including Catriona, Katie, Jake, Isobel, Andrés and Rachel all reported leaving their poem for at least two or three days, before coming back to it with fresh eyes, when you can “view your own work more objectively” (Katie).
Often, we write poems in a fever of inspiration, and the editing process is a chance to think about how the reader will respond to the piece. Kate advises thinking what effect the language will have on the reader, and being willing to change anything which might complicate the effect you want.
Various poets recommend that the best way of getting this sort of reader feedback is to pass the poem to someone whose opinion you trust. As Hannah says, this “is really helpful especially if you reach the point where you feel that you know the work too well to be able to take an objective enough view to edit it”.
Hannah and Katie stress that it’s important they can be honest with you, and give the negatives too, though of course it’s crucial that they can also be constructive! Isobel reports that it’s particularly useful to see if there’s something the reader doesn’t understand – you might have meant it to be ambiguous, but it’s important to know where the reader feels lost. There might be a local writing group you can join (if you are in the UK, have a look at our list of Poetry Opportunities or ask at your local library) and Jack recommends this as a great way to improve your work: “Collaboration can do a lot to improve your work and help you to grow as a poet.”
Poetry Society team: “I firmly believe T S Eliot’s phrase that a poem communicates before it’s understood, however whilst the ‘poetry’ of a poem may not be paraphrasable , the narrative/ argument/ associative meanings should be – and I think often it takes the editing and redrafting to make things clear.” Ed
“Also, if you’re working in a form then I think you have to be true to the sensibility of that form. The sonnet works especially well for argument, the villanelle for complaint / heartbreak – in the redrafting phase you can often see that the poem wants to be in another form.” Ed
Getting creative about redrafting
Andrés suggests reading the poem aloud to hear parts where you might trip up. Andrés also reports an added bonus, in that “Speaking aloud the poem can even be a creative function. Many times, while reading aloud my pieces, new ideas have popped into my head.”
In fact, getting a bit inventive with how you edit your poems works well for lots of poets. Sarah says she writes her poems first on a mobile phone, then emails the poem over and copies it into a word processor. “When I do this, I can see any non-grammatical problems or problems with spelling. These are the first issues to be corrected. After this, I read over and over maybe 5-10 times and change words that stop it from flowing at easily.” Ruby suggests keeping three notebooks: “one to write down extracts from poems/ books which inspire you in, another to scribble your rough drafts of poems in and another to write finished poems out neatly in!”
Rachel mixes up handwriting and typing: “I tend to hand write the first draft and then I edit it when I type it up. That’s usually when I rewrite sentences, reorganise stanzas, and read it aloud to see how it sounds when you listen to it. Even then, I tend to leave it a week at the very least before I type it up and begin editing, just so that I’m reading it with a clear head, so to speak.” And Isobel has an interesting idea – to rewrite your poem from memory. “Then compare the two poems, and take the best bits from both of them to make it the best you can.”
You don’t always have to rely on the written word, either. Mary Anne tells how “I often think about a poem for a long time before I write it down. So I sort of edit it in my head, maybe while I’m in the shower or while I’m travelling: this way I can hear if I like how it sounds rather than just seeing it on a page.”
Poetry Society team: “Play with shape and form. Try it on different ways: vary line length, stanza size, rhyme scheme. Doesn’t work for everything but it’s good exercise and can reveal the unexpected.” Kate
“Try reading your poem out loud to yourself, then try reading it a second time. This time read it very slowly; paying particular attention to line breaks and punctuation (it will sound funny but really exaggerate these as you read!)
Do the line breaks and punctuation actually represent your intentions? Does this reading match your first, more natural reading? Do you need to shorten or extend the lines? Do you need to add/remove punctuation? Redraft the poem at this point and then repeat the process until you’re happy with the poem and the written form matches the version you hear in your mind. It is also a good time to consider cutting or adding words in the poem too.
– If possible ask somebody else to read your poem out loud to you to see if they would read it in a similar way to you. If they read it completely differently to how you expect it may suggest that your punctuation and line breaks need adjusting.
– Try memorising your poem because having to remember it so carefully can make you more aware of the language and form you’ve used and created.” Jo
Have you heard the phrase ‘kill your darlings’? Sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do! Often the line, image or idea which sparked off a poem doesn’t actually need a place in the finished piece. But as Saga states, “you have to learn to be brave”. And take heart, because she also reminds us that “everything you write can be used later on. If you collect deleted snippets on a piece of paper they can be used to inspire more poems”.
Jamie suggests taking a leaf out of Plath’s book: “To get the right tools, start by reading exemplars of drafting processes. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: The Restored Edition is a great anthology to look at as it charts Plath’s editing.” Well, if it’s good enough for Sylvia Plath…! Then turn to your own poem, “change phrases for more concise wording, omit clutter, and fine tune your rhymes”, advises Jamie.
Look at your poem closely and really interrogate each line. Jonny gives some helpful tips for refining your work: “Beware of everything. This one is really simple. Whenever you find yourself using all-encompassing words like “all”, “nothing” or “everything,” take a moment and think if you really mean them. Was all lost? Would nothing feel like this again? Can someone know everything? Work against lines and language that acts as if it can describe a whole situation, person or emotion in such a broad or unproblematic way – they’re usually bluffing.”
Anna also gives some vital advice: “always keep copies of the previous draft, as new, unrelated ideas may start sprouting and you need to return to your original thoughts, or you may ‘over edit’ and want to go back to the start.”
Poetry Society team: Kate agrees with Anna – “Keep your drafts. You can go round the houses making changes, get lost and come back to near where you started – so you need to be able to find where you set out from. (I keep my drafts in my Hotmail account, with a folder for finished poems.)” Kate
Making your poem as powerful as possible
You know that feeling when you read a poem and it sort of punches you in the stomach? Of course, you can’t artificially impose that on your poem after you’ve written a first draft, but you can go through your poem and make some edits to bring out its natural power.
A lot of poets focus on the idea of truth – not just going for something because it sounds nice or seems ‘poetic’. “Truth will give your poem backbone,” declares Andrés, and Matthew adds “Be true to yourself.” Of course, you can still write about things outside your own experience, and try on different voices – that’s part of the fun!
As Brandon notes, it’s easy to distract from the power of your poems by tripping the reader up: “Don’t use too many tricky words of phrases, the poems needs to be at least understandable to at least engage the reader.” Upasna agrees: “Never be afraid to be explicit in your poems. People seem to have this assumption that the only way to make your poem meaningful is to use a bunch of abstractions and vague metaphors, but all that really does is keep your readers from fully understanding your poetry. Say what you mean, then work around that.”
Think about why your poem had to be written. As James says, “your job is to tell people something, not just to sound nice”. Saga agrees: “Some poems look good but say little. It is easy to fall in love with a poem just because of how it looks or sounds. Control your metaphors and don’t let an attractive poetry structure govern your writing. After you have written a poem ask yourself: ‘What am I trying to tell the reader with this poem? Why is this poem important?’ If the answers to these questions are weak you might need to redraft your poem for depth and meaning.”
One thing is fairly sure: clichés will generally weaken the power of your poem. Saga warns to avoid them: “Whenever I see words like “ashes” “fire” “darkness” or “shadows” I become skeptical. Poetry is about saying something nobody else had said before. Check your poem thoroughly and ask yourself if the language is original. If you decide to write about a frequently-used subject, like water or the moon, you’ve got to be even more on guard — how can you talk about this in an enchantingly new way?”
Jonny recommends a way to do this: choose a big (and perhaps traditionally ‘poetic’) theme, by all means, “but you’ll often find they are easier to swallow when boiled down to something smaller”. So you might write about “darkness” but approach it by describing a small patch of it underneath your window, or the moment when the light is turned off. You might choose not to name “darkness” at all, in your poem.
Beware also of a neatly tied-up ending. Sometimes these can work, though often an apparent conclusion is actually deliberately problematic. You want the reader to read the poem again, not get everything from it the first time. Serena explains that “My favourite kind of ending to a poem is where it’s more of a cliffhanger instead of definite solution because the ambiguity means anything and everything each time you read that poem.”
Poetry Society team: “I think it’s important not to think too much about the powerful effects of your poems. Generally that leads to slightly forced poetry, or it does with me anyway. I think it’s generally much better to make the lived experience of the poem as real as possible; if things described in the poem ring true because they’re unforced then it will usually be powerful.” Ed
“If something feels right because it sounds like something you’ve read elsewhere, it’s probably wrong.” Kate
Many thanks to all the poets who gave us such valuable advice!
If you are looking for inspiration, see Part I of our feature, packed with ideas for getting you in the writing frame of mind. And if you’ve written a poem, why not submit it to one of the competitions or publications in our list of Poetry Opportunities?