Drafting Poems

I wrote a few thoughts on drafting and re-drafting poems last night. I redrafted my thoughts today. This is only a draft.

1.  Does the opening line invite the reader to read the poem? Is it compelling? Is it hard to understand? If so, will it repel the reader? Do you need the first line? The first stanza? Half of the second stanza? Delete until you are left with the poem. Or not, in which case it probably wasn’t meant to be a poem.

2.  Have you read the poem aloud? Does it sound ‘right’? Is it hard to read? Where do the line breaks naturally fall?  Do you want to subvert this, and if so, to what purpose? What’s the white space doing? What shape best serves the poem?

3.  Do you need to put the poem away until you can see it more clearly? Come back tomorrow. Or next year. If you are struggling, go for a walk. Put the washing out. Do something else. Anything. Except maybe Laudanum.

4.  If you are attracted to a word for its ‘cleverness’, it’s probably the wrong word. Is a short, subtle word better than the long, flamboyant, archaic or obscure word? Are there some dull words in your poem? Get the Thesaurus out. Dive into meanings and glorious alternatives.

5.  Keep drafts. After one hundred and thirty three drafts, you might decide that the third is the best.

6.  Like skier on a slalom slope, keep the whole journey in mind. A shift in the balance in the poem will affect something further down. You may need a radical adjustment to your line. You may want to go back to the start.

7.  Do your rhymes and assonance serve or choke the poem? Avoid tongue twisters. Do you really need an ‘angry, addled, straggly, shambles of geese’? Or has the language evolved over time to express a lot in a single word. Will ‘a gaggle of geese’ suffice?

8.  Every word, every line break, every bit of punctuation needs to count. If you are not convinced, remove or change it.

9.  Is the poem “true” in terms of emotional resonance? If you don’t feel that it is, it’s unlikely your reader will.

10.  Is your political poem too literal? Does it lack subtlety? Can you approach the ‘political’ obliquely, emotionally, drawn on your own experience? Does it lack irony? Could you use allegory, imagery, a ballad or translation to approach the political?

11.  Does the world need this poem? Has it been done before? Are there any memorable lines? Is the poem doing enough?

12.  Is the end of your poem the way you want it to be? Is it stating the obvious? Do you have a stronger line to end on, further up the poem? Is it surprising? Does it need to be? Would it be better to ‘step off lightly’ than to end with a statement of what has already been said?

13.  Do your images relate to emotion, or are they there simply to show off? Do they detract from the poem? If you think an image is arresting but doesn’t fit in this poem, could you keep them back for another piece?

14.  Have you ‘stolen’ well enough? If you’ve used a model or started with a found piece, have you made it fully your own?

15.  Does the poem have too many ideas? Is less more?

16. Have you repeated yourself, covered the same ground twice or more?

17. Can you imply rather than state? Have you credited your reader with as much intelligence as feel you yourself have?

18. Are you interested in clarity of communication ? If so, do you need to make your poem clearer?

19.  Do you like your poem? If not, why not?


  1. Good grief – a template for all creative writing classes. I’d hate to answer ‘does the world need this poem?’ but essentially this is exactly the torture and delight we go through. You might also think of how moving from pen and paper to keyboard and computer alters the poem. Good stuff.


    • Thank you Neil. How to record your thoughts? Screen, paper, or a twig in the sand? I think the method of recording is a personal choice. I’ve heard people speak of the connection between pen (or pencil) in the hand and the mind. Many years ago, I loved to see words appearing under the typewriter’s striking arm, and these days I love typing a poem onto the screen. I do like the ease with which a poem can be altered on a screen, although many of my poems start as jottings on whatever is available.


  2. Here’s the question that I keep redrafting. Why do you want to write this? Why do you want to say it? Does it have to be a poem? And a sort of mantra. If you want to write a POEM you’re already on the wrong foot. If you want to find out what something means, then sometimes a poem will give you the answer. But I invariably start in prose, a sort of written-down thinking aloud. So maybe all your questions are about redrafting and editing and tweaking…except for number 11. That’s the important one. The world certainly needs you to nudge it along, Roy Marshall. xx


  3. Thanks John. I suppose I don’t ask any of these questions until I’ve written whatever I’m going to write. This piece was a hopeful attempt at what may matter for all of us after we’ve first put pen to paper ( or cursor to screen.) I’m not sure anyone needs my nudge. But I can’t help trying to bottle a bit of what I’m finding as I go along.


  4. I suspect that education too often defeats clarity.
    I remember clearly at seven or eight years old and reading and writing quite well by then, that constructing essays to impress the teacher involved taking something simple – a shoe, for instance – and elaborating it through the addition of adjectives.
    Similarly if the shoe DID anything we had to elaborate with adverbs.
    Of course as a very influential teacher coaxed us along and his favourite author was Dickens, the master-classes involved in examining Dickens’ sentences presented exemplars which seemed inevitably long, detailed and complicated.
    Learning to unwrite has been an ongoing struggle since then (the 1950s).
    Your “draft” is hugely helpful, Roy – thank you.


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