I once read a story about a poet who, while attending a seminar, excused himself from the morning session, explaining that he had a poem that needed work. He retired to his hotel room and spent the entire day reworking his first draft. When he rejoined his colleagues, they asked him how it went. He told them that, in the morning, he added a comma, but late in the afternoon, he removed it.
Editing is tedious, hard work. If you’ve pursued publication, no doubt you’ve invested far more time editing than writing the first draft. In my experience, by the time that I think I’m done, I have a love-hate relationship with my manuscript, blood-shot eyes and an aching back. Then I do what I think will be a final edit and find something else to change.
Writing to a prompt, we usually do so in haste. The beauty of this is that the raw emotion and creativity has a chance to bleed onto the page without obstruction. Over-editing allows the possibility of messing with the freshness of the original piece. So, like the poet mentioned in the opening paragraph, we want to avoid muddying our work. It’s a question of balance.
In my computer files, I’ve organized my poetry by the year I wrote it. However I have one file where I keep rejects. I named this file Trash or Edit There are plenty of poems there that have been previously posted on this blog. And some no one has ever seen. But I don’t delete them because, like many scenes edited out of my fiction writing, they often contain seeds of a new poem or, in the case of prose, a short story.
I’d like to offer a few tips (in no logical sequence) for you to keep in mind while editing. Some apply to prose, others to poetry—some to both. I hope you find them helpful:
- Set your manuscript or poem aside for a while so that when you return to it, you will see it with a fresh eye. Former Poet Laureat, Ted Kooser, suggests that you leave it alone until it looks as though someone else wrote it.Look for echoes—that is, a noticeable repetition of words or phrases that you did not include for a reason.
- Read your work aloud to yourself or others. You will hear and see errors in grammar, syntax and spelling. If you stumble over something, you need to look at it again
- Keep an eye out for unintentional changes in point of view, tense, and person.
- Evaluate excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Consider if an active verb might make your writing crisper.
- Watch out for overuse of the passive voice: “This poem was edited by the teacher,” versus active voice: “The teacher edited this poem.”
- Rewrite your poem as prose (and vice versa). This can help point out things such as awkward syntax, excessive words etc.
- Read your fiction manuscript backwards—chapter for chapter–to identify if you have tied up all the loose strings, or if some part of the story line is left hanging. When I did this for my first novel, Winter is Past, I found I’d changed the name of a secondary character midway through the story.
- Evaluate your use of enjambment (line breaks). When you read it aloud, something that isn’t working just screams at you. Consider that someday you may be asked to perform your work aloud at a poetry jam or reading. It’s especially important to read form poetry aloud to hear the placement of stresses, the meter.
- Ask for help. Share with a critique group or turn to one of the skilled writers here at dVerse for suggestions. Be willing to reciprocate.
- Tighten things up. Brevity is a blessing. Stephen King, in his book “On Writing,” suggests that writers aim to reduce the size of your manuscript by 10%. This won’t work with form poetry, most likely.
There are so many other things to mention, but this is long enough. Should I edit out 10% of it? Perhaps. In the meantime, I invite you to choose a poem, even one you’ve already posted, and perform surgery…radical surgery, if needed. Take something you’ve assigned to your literal or figurative trash file and re-create it into something you will be proud to read to an audience.
I’m scrubbing, gowning and gloving. Scalpel, please.
For those new to dVerse, welcome. Here’s how to play:
- Edit your poem and post it to your website or blog. If you like, you may include the original or a link so that we can compare.
- Copy and paste the direct URL to your poem to Mr. Linky at the bottom of this post. He will ask you for your name and URL.
- Return to the pub and visit the work of your fellow poets. Leave a comment, please.
- Enjoy yourselves.
For the team at dVerse, this is Victoria–happy as always to be your bartender tonight. Check out my recent publication, “Jacaranda Rain, Collected Poems, 2012” available on Kindle. Thank you!