So you have a pile of finished poems on your desk, now what?
At this point, you’ve probably already been daydreaming about what it would be like to hold a whole book of your own poems in your cramped, ink-stained writer’s hands. You’ve written and revised pages and pages of poems. Now it’s time to take the next step toward constructing and publishing your own beautiful book baby. You’re going to turn a scattered bunch of stand-alone pieces into a cohesive collection that follows a narrative arc from the first to the last poem—a whole that is greater than its parts. Here’s how you do it.
But before we start, a quick disclaimer: there is no one right way to arrange your poetry collection. This is an entirely subjective process that is incredibly personal to each poet. However, the how-to guide below from the poetry editors at Tell Tell will give you a map to follow as you figure out what works best for your poems, as well as important points and possibilities you’ll want to consider along the way.
Step 1: Manuscript Length
First, you want to take stock of exactly what you have, both lengthwise and poem-wise. If you were to include all of the poems from this pile of finished pieces in your manuscript, how long would it be? There are generally two length-based categories for poetry books with important distinctions: chapbooks and full-length collections. The standards for these manuscript sizes can vary slightly depending on the preferences of whichever press or publisher you end up working with, but there are accepted industry-wide size ranges for each. On the shorter side are the chapbooks, clocking in around 15-30 pages. On the longer side are the full-length collections, which are usually 40-80 pages. You want to figure out exactly which of these animals you’re working with before you get to the job of taming and wrangling it. If your manuscript falls somewhere between these two categories, it’s probably going to end up being a short full-length collection (which does happen and is accepted!). But our next step might help make this determination even clearer.
Step 2: Which Poems Make the Cut
Now, you’re going to have to ask the hard question of yourself and your poems: do each and every one of these pieces belong in this particular manuscript? When making this evaluation, you will want to keep two general criteria in mind:
Does this poem fit within the broad thematic concerns that are central to this manuscript?
Does the strength and quality of the writing in this poem measure up to the standard set by the other poems in this manuscript, or the standard to which you aspire?
You’re going to take an unsparing and unsentimental inventory of each individual poem and, with the above criteria, you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether each piece has earned its place in the manuscript. Remember: it is always better to have a slightly shorter book than to fill extra pages with poems that are weaker or out of place.
But what about that one poem you absolutely love that is one of the best things you’ve ever written but is also wildly different in subject matter from the rest of these poems? Save it for the next manuscript! You don’t have to fit everything you want to say in this first book. Grant yourself permission to daydream about a second book and beyond. You don’t plan to stop writing any time soon, right?
Once you’ve removed any poems that haven’t made the final cut, repeat step one to reevaluate the type of manuscript you’ll be working with as you move forward.
Step 3: Sorting Your Poems in Themed Groups
This is when the process gets a bit more dynamic and tactile! For this next step, you will want to print out each and every poem in the manuscript. Each poem needs to be on its own sheet of paper, so print single-sided, except for the poems that span more than one page. If a poem runs longer than one double-sided sheet (that is, longer than two digital pages), make sure you staple those few loose pages together so that the poem stays intact as you are shifting paper around. Trust me: this will help keep you organized when there are pages scattered on the floor around you.
Once all the poems are printed, find an area where you can spread out a bit—a clear patch of floor works well or even your bed (if you’ve got a queen- or king-size mattress). You are going to reread your poems one by one with an eye toward the major themes that emerge. Create a separate pile for each theme and sort the poems into the pile where they best fit. After your initial round of sorting, take a look at what you’ve ended up with! Anywhere from 3-5 major themes is a good goal to keep in mind. If you have more than five major themes, you might want to consider whether one or more of these groups belongs in a separate manuscript. Look for natural connections between the themed groups—how they might fit together like pieces of the same puzzle.
Now is when you want to begin thinking about the structure of your manuscript. Will you separate these themes into distinct sections with section titles? Or should the poems flow uninterrupted by this visible architecture? If you’re considering titled sections:
Think about how breaking up the manuscript changes the reading experience—the sense of flow and redirection.
Think about how those section titles can do additional poetic work by being more than a literal label of what the section contains. How can these titles create an internal sense of structure through allusion and metaphor, bringing out additional layers of meaning in the poems and in the manuscript as a whole?
But if dividing the manuscript into distinct sections ends up feeling like a kind of redundancy or is heavy-handed, then abolish the idea of sections! Leave some breathing room for the readers so that they can draw their own connections between poems and do the magical work of unraveling the layers of meaning for themselves.
Step 4: Creating a Cohesive Narrative Arc
Whether or not you decide to incorporate sections into your manuscript, you will now need to do the work of piecing your manuscript—poem by poem—into a cohesive narrative arc. Stay in your spread-out, poems-all-over-the-floor stance and get comfortable because we’re going to be here a while longer. Take a last look at your themed groups of poems and decide which order the groups should follow in order to create a natural narrative structure. Which of these things comes first? Last? Which themed group can act as a natural bridge from one to another? Sometimes this might lead to a chicken-or-egg scenario and the final determination comes down to the preferences of the poet. However you decide, arrange the piles in front of you in this final order from left to right.
OK, so you’ve organized the themed groups into a narrative macro-sequence. Now, zoom in further. You’re going to repeat this process within the groups, organizing the poems in each group into their own micro-sequence. Grab the first pile of poems in your grouped organization and push the other piles off to the side. Lay each of the poems in this first group out in front of you so you can see them all at once and then begin the process of shuffling them around. As you arrange the individual poems into their mini-narrative, keep in mind where you want to end up; by which I mean: remember which themed group comes next in your sequence and figure out how you’re going to get there. At the place where our groups or sections join, it’s always a good idea to incorporate “hinge poems” to create cohesion between these groups. These are poems that form a kind of hinge between one group or section and another through a slight blending of shared ideas, images, and language, so the sections end up bleeding one into the other. They will be poems already in your manuscript that you identify as being able to serve this purpose; although if you do discover a gap in your narrative sequence that a new poem might be able to fill, go ahead and write that new piece! The hinge poems will be the last poem in one section and the first poem in the section that follows. Your poems will simply open a door from one themed group into the next and the reader will step through it.
As you finish organizing one section, make sure you have placed the printed-out poems in this order. Then flip them over and move the finished pile off to the side. Repeat this arranging process for each group or section, adding the ordered poems to your finished pile. Then, when you’ve gone through the whole manuscript, flip your finished pile over, clamp it all together with a handy binder clip, and type up your new table of contents.
Now, take a closer look at the two poems you have chosen as the first and last in the collection. How do these bookends shape the readers’ experience? If they don’t feel quite right as the pieces that open and close this collection, consider swapping them with another stronger poem within their themed group. Reread the entire manuscript now in its new order and ask yourself:
Are you able to follow an emotional narrative arc from one poem to the next?
Does it feel true to the poems and to the collection as a whole?
If your answer to either of these questions is “No,” then reread the manuscript and note when a particular poem interrupts the flow of the narrative. Then try to find where that poem might be a better fit. It might turn out that that poem should’ve been sorted initially into a different themed group because so many of your poems will easily fit into more than one of these thematic categories. Once you’ve shifted the poems into their tightest, best-fitting arrangement and you’re happy with how the manuscript reads, update your table of contents again.
When you’re finally done the work of arranging your manuscript, all of the individual poems together should build on one another, forming one greater, mother-poem. So how do you go about finding a title for it? As with my suggestions for titling sections, try to steer clear of titles that simply act as a label for the contents within the manuscript. You want your title to help tie the structure of your collection together by bringing out additional layers of meaning in the poems themselves. If you do incorporate titled sections, your manuscript title should relate back to them. If you don’t use sections, consider a particularly evocative line or phrase within one of the poems that you could envision as a metaphor for the manuscript as a whole. Think about how you title your poems and approach your title for this mother-poem of a manuscript in the same way.
Before You Go: A Few Document Formatting Tips
You’ve got your poems arranged exactly how you want them, so let’s put the finishing touches on your manuscript document! First, make sure you include page numbers at the bottom of every page except the cover sheet. Second, each poem should start on a new page. There should never be more than one poem on any page. And it’s always better to insert a true page break in your document rather than pressing the enter key until you reach the next page.
This is the necessary front matter you want to include:
Table of Contents
Each of these should be kept as simple as possible—no extra embellishments in the font choice or any kind of decorative elements. The cover sheet should list the full manuscript title and the author’s name (that’s you!) near the center of the page, then, toward the bottom, the author’s contact information (mailing address, phone number, email address). The table of contents should include every poem title along with their corresponding page number. The acknowledgments page is where you list any previous publication credits for the poems included in the manuscript. So if any of these poems have been published in literary journals or anthologies or anywhere else, be sure to specify on your acknowledgments page which poems appeared in which publications.
There you have it! Your manuscript is arranged and properly formatted and ready for sending out to publishers. If you have further questions about this process or you want more personalized guidance, feel free to reach out to us at Tell Tell anytime for a manuscript evaluation or overhaul.
I enjoyed this post! I was assigned this article for a writing class I’m in and even though I’m not writing poetry for the course, I found it very helpful, and loved this particular quote:
“You don’t have to fit everything you want to say in this first book. Grant yourself permission to daydream about a second book and beyond. You don’t plan to stop writing any time soon, right?”