Writing a poem is only half of the thing, right? After you write the poem, you have to look at it. Stop looking at it. Edit it. Stop editing it. But how? With this quick and easy editing guide, we’ll walk you through six basic steps to edit your poem without losing its core.
Step one: it can be helpful to start with a thesis statement. What is the point of your poem? What is the poem telling the world? What is the poem telling you? This statement should be simple and concise. For example: “when I stumbled into a field of lupines I realized life is full of mystery.”
Now we’ll go through the poem line by line and ask: does this line work towards my thesis? If the answer is no, ask: why not? Is it aiding the poem’s goal? Is it subverting the poem’s goal (this can still be quite interesting and worth keeping, we just want to KNOW)? Is it distracting the reader from the poem’s goal? Is it confusing the poem’s goal?
Step two gets into some nitty-grittys. We’re going to talk about intensifiers, adjectives, conjunctions, “to be” verbs, and articles.
Intensifiers are words like very, so much, indeed, and so on. If I am “very happy” what I might mean is “gleeful.” If I’m “so sad” I might want to write “despondent.” The trouble is ramped up nouns like “gleeful” and “despondent” aren’t such great options either, due to their tendency to sound like an eighth-grade prize-winning essay. What can get you even deeper into the meaty movement of a poem is finding an image to replace that intensely felt word. What if instead of “very happy” or “gleeful” your poem looks up to see cracks of sunlight streaming through window slats? Can that image evoke extreme happiness? How does an image rather than a feeling change your poem?
Adjectives work similarly. Adjectives are words that modify your nouns, sometimes necessary and often overused, like “a beautiful flower.” What is “beautiful” saying? Is there an image that can show the flower’s beauty instead of a word? What would the poem become if that flower has a color, a smell, or a movement instead of “beautiful” to describe it?
Notice the difference between these two phrases:
a beautiful flower
the yellow lupine swayed among the wind’s eddies
It isn’t that the poet hasn’t said the flower is beautiful in the first example, it’s just that they haven’t PROVEN the flower’s beauty. What picture of beauty can a reader make in their mind if all they have to work on is the word “beautiful?” The reader needs more and that more is motion, sense, and imagery.
“To be” verbs are another way of finding inflation in a poem. Circle each is, are, am, was, were, been and being. Experiment with cutting each one of those circled “to be” verbs. How does your poem read now? Is it missing anything? Is it tighter, swifter, more interesting? Is it awkward? You will likely end up needing some of these “to be” verbs, but not all.
Now let’s do the same thing to conjunctions; words like and, then, even, after. These are the words that connect clauses in a sentence, but poetry is not prose writing and we don’t need to connect all clauses. Cut every single one and then add back in only the ones that are truly necessary to keep a sense of logic in the poem. In poetry, words are precious. We keep only that which is necessary.
Now let’s look at the end words of each line. Where the line breaks is the most powerful word in the line, and collectively the end-words make up the most powerful words in your poem. The human mind lingers on that last word and we want to leverage it for all it’s worth. Instead of breaking a poem like this:
the yellow lupine swayed among
the wind’s eddies
we might choose to break it as
the yellow lupine swayed
among the wind’s eddies
“Among” is cheap. It’s the kind of word language demands of us for logic purposes but its contribution to the image the poet is evoking is far less than “swayed,” which is actually the linchpin word of the whole phrase, the word that brings movement into the description.
Designate one highlighter color for each of these issues, (revision technique from Writing Cooperative)
pink → intensifier
yellow → adjectives/adverbs
green → conjunctions
orange → end words
Now take a look at all those highlighted words and ask yourself what they are adding to the poem. If they’re crucial, keep them. If they’re questionable, change them, preferably into image or sense related words or phrases. If they’re extraneous, cut them. Now read the poem and see how it feels.
The issue with these words we’ve discussed above and experimented with reducing isn’t that they are bad or wrong, but what they do is they ask the poet to spend extra time on descriptions, and often on parts of the description that are less interesting. In a craft like poetry that leans so heavily on specific, spare language, extra words deflate a poem and rob it of its possible tension. That tension is what pulls the reader into and through the poem, so we don’t want to give up on it!
Which brings us to step three, senses: we tend to be very good at evoking visual imagery in our poems, but we also tend to neglect the other senses. Look through your poem and circle each image your poem incorporates. As a general rule, we have five senses. How many of these senses does your poem’s imagery take advantage of?
Can you try to incorporate at least three different senses for your readers? When the poem’s sense bank is filled, the reader has an easier time entering your poem, an easier time envisioning your poem, feeling your poem in their gut.
Let’s go back to those yellow lupines for a minute. We have the visual, at least in its basic form, because we know the lupines are yellow. We might even have an inkling of smell, because merely the visual of flowers can prompt the evocation of floral scent. But what do the leaves feel like? What do those eddies of wind sound like? Can you crush a flower petal in your fingers and feel its sap run over your palm line? Can you rub the sap into your hands like moisturizer and then inhale? Can you hear those plains of lupine moving in the wind without using the word “rustling?”
Step four: never underestimate the power of the internet. What can you learn about your poem’s thesis, placement, or images that can lend depth to your poem?
A quick Wikipedia search of yellow lupines tells us a few intriguing points:
indigenous to California
grows mostly on the coast and near sand dunes
leaves are covered with silky hairs
often becomes invasive
can grow in cracks of stone walls
Now you have some deeper lupine imagery to incorporate into your poem. For its sensual details, you know the leaves feel silky, you know they grow in sand dunes, so perhaps they are covered in grit and condensed salt. For smell imagery, they can smell of salty ocean air or the air around them can smell of salt. You can incorporate some threatening imagery considering that they have become invasive to the native ecosystem. You can incorporate resilience imagery because they can grow through cracks in stone. You can incorporate coastal highways and craggy cliffs. You can describe them as “gold” rather than “yellow” and link that to the history of the gold rush in California. See which aspect matches your poem’s thesis best and run with it. You may even find this deepening image will take you in a while new stanza or direction.
Do you still feel like something is lacking in your poem? Or are you just wondering how much further you can go? Step five is find your most intriguing image in the poem. Write it out. Now start a new poem with that image as the first line. Alternatively, you can circle all your most favorite images in the first draft of the poem and incorporate them into a new poem that starts on your most favorite image. It’s possible this new poem will become a better version of the original poem. It’s possible it will become a companion poem, or the beginning of a series of poems, or possibly it will lend more material to your original poem, enriching and deepening it when you meld the two poems together.
Step six is to read through your newly revised poem and ENJOY THIS MOMENT. Cheer yourself, because each inching of that poem to maturity is a testament to you and your creativity.
Want the bullet points?
Six steps will have you transforming your first draft into a finished draft:
What’s your thesis?
What’s your poem’s point? What does it mean to say? Does every single line lean into that point?
Using intensifiers and adjectives often indicate you haven’t found the right word yet. Even better, turn that elusive word into an image. “To be” verbs and conjunctions are usually clutter.
Lean into the senses
We’ve got five of them, remember? Try to hit at least three in your poem.
Harness the internet
You mentioned a flower, but you don’t really know what it looks like. Want to deepen your image? Read up on it and incorporate your new knowledge.
Expand your poem
Circle your favorite image in the poem. Put it at the top of a page and start a new poem right there. Maybe it will replace your old poem, maybe it will expand it.
You’ve worked hard. Enjoy what you’ve created!