Revision: all poets do it, but it can be so hard to know where to start! Poet Traci Brimhall says, “Revision teaches me how to push beyond the choices that come easily. It restrains me, challenges me, forces me back and back and back again to my failures. Process saves me from the poverty of my intentions.” Strong revision practices can take your poem from a good impulse and help it soar to new heights of precision and impact. But what do you do if you know you have to revise a poem, but you’re not sure where to start?
Read that poem out loud
In school, you probably learned to read other poets’ poems out loud. But do you remember to read your own poems out loud? Giving robust voice to your work is perhaps the most important step to take in revision.
When you read your poem out loud to yourself, it makes it easier to hear and notice where the meter or rhyme might be off or clunky. It also will allow you to hear and notice when you might be getting overly “talky” or chatty in a poem: when the words start sounding more like prose, and more confined to the tyranny of standard sentence structure, like chit-chat. Take time to circle or highlight any lines, phrases, or words that don’t sound quite right to you. Try reading your poem out loud in front of a mirror, too — this can help you notice the parts of the poem that aren’t as strong.
Find your strongest lines, phrases, or words
Highlight these strongest lines and phrases and read them out loud a few times. Your goal is to make the rest of the poem live up to these best lines. Pay attention to your own good work: what makes these lines so strong? Are they particularly vivid or unique? Do they use language in a surprising, playful, or enjoyable way? Are there parts of your poem where you could add in more of that good stuff? Or, what would happen if you pared away some of the sections that don’t contain those best lines? Let your best lines be your guide in your revision.
Scan your poem for filler words
Are there a lot of articles (the, a, an) in your poem that you don’t really need? Are there a lot of short, non-specific filler words (and, but, so, then, they, it, etc.) that you could cut without changing the meaning of the poem? Could your pronouns be specific nouns? Cutting the clutter of unnecessary words and phrases will help your best lines pop and stand out.
Check for verb tense consistency and pronoun consistency
Do you start the poem in the present tense and then switch to the past tense halfway through? Do you start the poem using the second-person “you” and then switch to the first-person “I?” Make sure any changes in tense and pronoun are intentional and make sense.
Make your language specific
Look for generic nouns and verbs and try to replace some of them with specific ones. If there’s a bird in your poem, what kind of bird is it? If the speaker notices the sky, what time of day is it? What is the light like? What color is the sky? Are there clouds in that sky? What kind of clouds? Think about ways you can make your poem more specific and concrete.
Try writing an antonym version of your poem
In this revision exercise, re-write your poem with each line conveying the opposite meaning you originally wrote. Why? Because saying the opposite of what you think you want to say can help you notice where your language might be obscure or confusing. This strategy can also help you stay surprised in your own writing process. Maybe some words or phrases that you didn’t think belonged in your poem really do. Sometimes, writing the opposite helps clarify the truth.
Try flipping or inverting the poem’s sequence
What would happen if you write the ending first? What would happen if the last stanza becomes the first stanza? What would happen if you start in the middle? Even if you think you know what order the poem should be in, let yourself play with it and see what happens. The best revisions are often the ones that surprise us.
Take a good long look at your ending
Most poets write their endings last when they work on a new poem. Return to your ending with fresh energy. What would happen if you ended the poem a few lines sooner? What would happen if you wrote five more lines? Ask yourself: am I making this ending too comfortable? What would it mean to make the ending less tidy?
Lastly, share your poem with a trusted friend or a writing coach
Read the poem out loud to someone else, or, even better, ask them to read it out loud to you. Getting one-on-one feedback from a trusted writing coach can help you truly solidify if your poem is having the impact you intend for it to have.
Even if you don’t know where to start, you know you need to revise. Every poet does! Use these nine strategies when you have Revision Block and take your solid first draft to the best version of itself it can be.