Editing poems

A few years ago I wrote a piece on here entitled ‘Drafting Poems.’  I now think the title should probably have been ‘Editing Poems.’  As I understand it, drafting a poem involves a preliminary exploration, the writing of first and subsequent versions. When I revisited what I’d written under the ‘Drafting’ title it seemed to me to have more to do with editing, this being a process perhaps involving some ‘distance’ in order to make considered revision of an earlier version. Whatever the heading, when I first shared the piece here I was contacted separately by two accomplished national award-winning poets who asked if they might use my guide in teaching writing courses.  This suggests to me that at least some of these points are potentially useful.  I’ve revised the document slightly and am sharing it again with my own students in mind; if I give them the link it might save me adding to all the time I’ve spent standing beside a hot photocopier of late.
Feel free to share. I’d appreciate a credit if you do.  Thank you.


1.  A title is the doorway to the poem, our first impression, our handle. Is your title a generalised summary of what’s in the poem? Can your title work harder, perhaps do the work of several lines within the poem? Is there a more interesting and/or inviting title to be found in the poem?

2.  Do you need the opening line? Has the title done that work already? Does the opening line invite the reader to read on? Is it compelling? Is it hard to understand? If so, will it repel the reader or is intriguing?

3.  Is your first line ‘scaffolding’, i.e. the bit of the poem you needed to write to get yourself into the poem but which the reader doesn’t need to see? 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. NB keep drafts (see below)

4. Have you read the poem aloud? Does it sound ‘right’? Is it hard to read? Is the rhythm ‘lumpy’? Do any rhymes or half rhymes serve the poem well or are there too many/ not enough? Does it move and flow well? Does it jolt or falter? Are some lines too sparse, some too crowded? Can you change phrases to make the wording more concise, fine tune rhymes, de-clutter your poem?

5. When reading aloud, consider how sound effects the speed of the poem and if this fits with the content. E.g. ‘The boat moved over the water, rowers working the oars’ has predominantly ‘o’ sounds which serve to slow down the line. But if this is a racing boat and a reader might get a better sense of this from ‘the crew strained, blades dipped and skimmed.’

6. How does the shape of the poem affect the way it is read? Does the form reflect the content? Does it need to? Have you chosen couplets out of habit? Remove line breaks/stanzas and see what effect this has. Where do the line breaks naturally fall? Do you want to subvert this? What’s the white space doing? How does it affect the pace of the poem? Does your ‘wild’ poem look too uniform? Have you tried several shapes to find what works best?

7. Do you need to put the poem away again until you can see it more clearly? Are you in the right frame of mind to edit (attentive, focused, feeling as creative as when you wrote it?) If not, come back tomorrow. Or next week. If you are struggling with the poem, go for a walk. Read poetry. Read anything. Listen to music. Put the washing out. Do something else.

8. If you are attracted to a word for rarity or oddity in the context of the poem, is it the right word? Is a simple word better than the flamboyant, archaic, or obscure one? Are there some dull words in your poem? Is that ok if they serve the poem as a whole? Can you use the technical term e.g. ‘their high vis vests’ instead of ‘their reflective yellow vests?’ Have you looked at synonyms, checked the thesaurus, explored meanings and alternatives. ‘Plain’ language can sometimes be settled for rather than worked for.

9. Do you suspect that your poem (or any word, image, phrase, metaphor) may be a cliché? Is it OK to use cliché in some instances? Can you remove or transform it? Can you debate or refresh it?

10. Is your poem, or certain words or lines, trying too hard? Not every line has to be ‘stand out’; ‘quieter’ lines might provide structure, be the setting that allows the jewels to shine, or be regarded as the web that allows the drops of dew to catch the light, or whatever metaphor you prefer. Have you overdone the metaphors? Similarly, do you have too many similes? Are sparrows really ‘zooming overhead like a flight of arrows’?
11. Keep drafts. After one hundred and thirty-three drafts, you might decide that the third is the best. Don’t throw an ‘unsuccessful’ poem away. You might find it one day and give it (or something in it) new life.

12. Like a 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 and see where your natural rhythm/ internal rhymes were in an earlier draft.

13. Check to see if you feel you need every adverb and adjective. If you feel you do, have you considered less often used alternatives, e.g. perhaps ‘attentively’ instead of ‘carefully’? Is the lack of adverbs and adjectives making your poem dull?

14. Do you really need an ‘angry, addled, straggly, shambles of geese’? or will ‘a gaggle’ do the job? Is there any language that seems self consciously ‘poetic’ or overwrought? Would it be better to use simpler language (e.g. ‘waves’ instead of ‘briny grey hills?’)

15. Is every word, every line break, every bit of punctuation there for a reason? Commas can slow a poem and can often be removed without effecting how the poem will read. Check semi-colons, colons, dashes. Are they required? Do you need to add punctuation to keep the sense you intend?

16. Consider the part of the poem you are most pleased with- the line or word you think is great. Does it detract from the poem as a whole? Is it out-of-place like a red rain hat worn by a woman in a little black dress on a catwalk or a stove-pipe hat on a Lycra clad cyclist? Is that what you want it to do Would the poem be more balanced, more integrated without it?

17. Is the poem “true” in terms of emotional resonance? If you feel that it isn’t, it’s unlikely your reader will. Is there constancy to its emotional tone (or deliberate inconsistency?) Is there an emotional ‘core’ and do you know what it is? Is your ‘truth’ a ‘received’ truth? Do any phrases or words distract from the power of your poems by ‘tripping the reader up?’

18. If people are ‘speaking’ the poem or in the poem, are they voicing language that people really use? Is it archaic (ok if the characters are from history) Is it convincing? If you are using personification, do you really know your character or are they simply a sketch or stick person? Can you put flesh on their bones, heat in their breath, blood in their veins?

19.  Is your political poem too literal? Does it lack subtlety? Does it tell the reader what to think or ask a question? Can you approach the ‘political’ obliquely, emotionally, referencing history or by drawing on your own experience? Does it lack irony? Could you use allegory, imagery, a ballad or translation to approach the political?

20. Has this poem been written before and possibly better? Can you twist or turn it a few degrees to make it more original and specifically ‘yours’? Are there any memorable lines? Any surprises? Is the poem doing enough?

21. Do your images relate to emotion? Are your images a way to escape or avoid the emotional content of the poem? Have you been too ‘casual’ with a strongly emotive subject? Too literal? Are your images working with the rest of the poem? Are they simply ‘showing off?’ If you think an image is surprising, original, arresting, but doesn’t fit in this poem, could you keep it for another piece?

22. Have you given inanimate or non-sentient objects or phenomena agency they don’t have? Does she ‘raise ecstatic hands’ or ‘raise her hands ecstatically’?

23. Have you ‘stolen’ well enough? If you’ve used a model or started with a found piece or a text, have you made it your own? If your poem began as a ‘workshop’ exercise, has it moved far enough away from its origins? If you have used source for material, is there enough detail or information for the reader to make sense of it or is the reader left wondering what they have missed?

24. Does the poem contain too many ideas? Would it be better to reduce them to one? Is less more?

25. Have you repeated yourself? Have you said the same thing in a different way when once would be enough? If there is repetition, is it being used deliberately and for a purpose? Have you covered the same ground twice or more?

26. Can you imply rather than state? Have you credited your reader with as much intelligence as feel you yourself have? Are you stating what is implied elsewhere in the poem?

27. Have you tried changing tense; past to present, present to past? Have you tried changing ‘I’ into ‘she’ or ‘he’?

28. Do you need to make your poem clearer? Have you assumed something cryptic is understood? If there is ambiguity in your poem, does it work in favour of the poem or induce confusion? Have you checked for ‘shadow’ meanings, i.e. words or combinations of words that have resonances and trigger meanings you may not have meant to include in the poem and therefore distract the reader?

29. Is your poem concise enough? Tight enough? Can you make ‘easy gains’, e.g. replace one of several ‘I will not’ s’ with ‘I won’t’? Remove a ‘she said’? Are there area’s where your poem is rambling? Are you at risk of losing your reader? Is any of your poem too wordy/ prosy? Is it long enough or can you expand, perhaps take it in another direction?

30. Is the end of your poem stating the obvious?

31. Do you have a stronger line to end on, further up the poem? Would it be better to ‘step off lightly’ than to end with a summary of what has already been said? Would it be best to end with an image rather than a statement? Have you tried removing the last line? The one above that?

32. Would you be happy to read this poem aloud to someone? If not, why not? Are you proud of it and if so why? What qualities do you feel it has? Can you expand on the best bits? Is there a part of it you feel isn’t ‘right’?




Further reading



Roy Marshall 2015, revised 2018.

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