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Editing Poetry

AtoZ E logoDay 5 – “E” as in “Editing”

I will do my best to keep these next few posts as brief as possible since I am in dire need of catching up on this challenge. *cheers from the crowd* (You’re welcome.) 😉

As much as I love editing (I know, it’s sick and perverse), I won’t exhaust this topic. It has been discussed time and time again, debated even more so, and I think we can all agree that Editing is the necessary evil to poetry…less evil and more necessary, in my opinion. But let’s be honest–there are so many opinions about editing floating around in the writing community, so, for this blog post, I figured I would keep it relatively simple and outline the three basic types of editing I have personally experienced and witnessed in the poetry-writing process. Of course, I think there are variations of the following examples, and everyone has a preferred editing style, but I think we can all agree that these encompass the universal spirit of what we experience when revising our babies. 🙂

“Draft, revise, rewrite, revise, reword, redo, repeat…”

Ahh, the random but glorious onslaught of revising the Dickens out of a piece of poetry. We all have these messy moments, some more than others. It can feel sporadic and chaotic and messy and overwhelming, while all the scratches and scribbles and revisions make it seem like you’re making incredible progress (and, for your sake, I hope you have!). I’ve had poems like this…they start as an idea, like they always do, and I sketch out a first draft. I read it. Read it again. Make some notes in the margins, omit a word, replace another. Read it. Love it a little. Hate it more. Then sleep on it to start all over again in the morning in hopes to pull something meaningful from my smattering of vocabulary. And we poets will rework these babies until they feel right, sound right, read right. While there are different “levels” of this kind of editing, it can become a tiresome and irritating process, but hey–not all poems come out perfect the first time. There is no shame in editing the hell out of a piece of your work. But at the same time, remember that you are your toughest critic–and you need to give yourself some amount of grace, knowing when enough is enough. Bleeding all over the page is one thing; killing it is another. Remember: the purpose is to hone and reshape and tighten the piece, not obliterate it beyond recognition. Make sure you’re constantly aware of the arteries you choose to cut open for your art.


Sometimes we have all the wonderful time in the world to nurture a piece to life, and our poems come in little spurts of inspiration. I just wrote a sonnet this week, and created each quatrain separately, one a day. It didn’t stress me out to think I had left a piece unfinished–it felt right to compose a little, step away, come back, add some, then sleep. It makes me wonder how many times we force the writing-then-editing-then-writing process, overall, rather than let it occur at its own natural pace. Poets often fall into the trap of obsessing about a piece until it is “finished” to our full approval. (Guilty!) In that sense, I think it is perfectly constructive to take the “edit-as-you-go” approach. Some poets literally edit-as-they-go while writing a poem’s first draft, with their mind making the conscious editing decisions as they are putting it to paper. I know I have had a few of those, which have saved me lots of paper and ink, in retrospect! Thus, I naturally like this kind of editing because it often saves me time and resources and headaches, and it is a good mental discipline to be train my brain to make split-second decisions about my work in the moment. This doesn’t always happen when composing my personal pieces, but it sure is nice when it does.

“First Draft is the Only Draft”

I am very familiar with this type of editing (or rather…the lack thereof). This is a heartier version of the Edit-As-You-Go kind of editing, because you are revising and reworking as you go for the very first and last time. This type of editing occurs most often when you only have a small window of time to get the piece out of your mind and onto paper before it is gone forever. I relate to this so much, it’s ridiculous. For me, this is what I live and breathe every week when busking Pop Up Poetry (I explain “P.U.P.” a little more in my “B” post on “Busking”), and so, my experience with this type of editing is ingrained within my process by nature.

The entire Pop Up Poetry prompt/writing/editing experience goes something like this: A person approaches me as I sit at my desk with my typewriter. They ask what I’m doing and what is “all this” as they gesture at my setup (I chuckle, because, honestly, I do look a little out-of-place). I tell them about Pop Up Poetry and that I’ll type a custom poem for them, on-the-spot, using any subject they desire. They usually think for a moment before tossing out a topic, and then I’m off–the clock is ticking and the second hand is racing against me. I feed a sheet of paper into my typewriter, gather my thoughts, and GO. I have to. I have no choice. This is my livelihood and my passion, and there is absolutely no time to Google words or phrases or twiddle my thumbs or take time to jot down edits and then type the entire piece over again. No way. I would be the worst poet-busker out there if I did any of that and I would not be here today telling you about it. My first draft is always the only draft. And I have to be okay with the final draft. Because I have to let it go when I’m done. It’s a humbling experience, for sure, haha! Writers are only human; we’re bound to make mistakes on our “only draft” poems, but I think that’s part of the beauty of it–it is raw and real and it represents the impossible meeting of my imagination with a stranger’s inspiration. It has definitely taught me to be intentional about each and every word I type in my poems.

In Closing…

That being said, we poets, I feel, are always against the clock. Our minds often think faster than our poor fingers can relay the words to paper, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. It’s just how our minds work; a blessing and a curse. Which is why Editing is so important and can be our friend. Sometimes, a poem receives numerous edits before it sees the light of day…sometimes a poem is created over time, bit by bit…and sometimes, a poem comes out a particular way and it doesn’t receive edits…sometimes by choice, sometimes by fate. I think we occasionally create poems that we realize don’t require many edits, if any, even if they’re flawed. We like them just as they are, like the quirky three-legged stray dog that just shows up on our doorstep one day; it’s too cute to ignore, merely begging with its big, puppy-dog eyes that we accept it just the way it is. So we do, and it’s happy. We’re happy.

I love that kind of writing. I’ve grown used to fate making me edit as I compose thanks to Pop Up, and thus I have taught myself to quickly create first-draft-only-draft poems. In fact, it has become a really wonderful practice; I have learned how to be a better writer by being a better editor, knowing when and when not to change something in the moment. It is a fantastic discipline that I believe all poets could benefit from, because, like I mentioned before, I think writers can obsess about perfection a little too much when it comes to our babies. Write it as well as you can the first time, and save yourself the trouble of gads of subsequent edits (while not always possible, it’s a good practice). Of course, we only wish to deem a poem “perfect” before releasing it to the world, but we don’t always have that luxury, nor should that be the norm. Balance is important, and only you know yourself and your poetry better than anyone, so it’s all about a balanced personal perspective. See, even those tripod pups of ours are as worthy of receiving our literary affection just like any other quadruped pet. Our babies are no less of a living thing, no less capable of bestowing love or lessons or kindness or understanding upon an individual than anything else. Yes! Groom your poetry! (Pun intended.) If it feels wrong, make the necessary changes. Scrutinize it, discipline it, smile, give it some love, appreciate it, and let it go. Honestly, at the end of the day, if your poetry comes from your heart and is 100% original and you know you gave it your all, it cannot be wrong. (And, hey, if you’re publishing it, that’s what you’re paying your editor for, anyway.) 😉

I know…it got long again. I’m sorry, but I truly hope it was worth your time. Thank you and happy writing! (And editing!)

The first draft of my original poem, "Atlas."
The first draft of my original poem, “Atlas.”
Final draft of “Atlas.”


Published inStorytime & Blog
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