Learning Concision and the Art of Self-Editing When Writing Poetry ` W,hen reading someone else’s poem, as writers , we generally know when that poem is really good. We can also be very astute in critiquing the work of others. However, when it comes to our own efforts, we are often oblivious to the most glaring weaknesses. Why? Because we are confident of our abilities and secretly believe that we are the very best poets in the entire universe. Right? And perhaps we are. Nonetheless, as professional poets, we all need to learn concision and the art of self-editing. In order to be capable at self-editing, we must train ourselves to be objective, critical readers of our own work. And yes, that means being objective about work that is emotional, personal, and always important to us—something that is extremely difficult to do. But then
In order to be capable at self-editing, we must train ourselves to be objective, critical readers of our own work. And yes, that means being objective about work that is emotional, personal, and always important to us—something that is extremely difficult to do. But then once upon-a-time, walking was difficult, but after a while it became something we could do without even thinking about it. Self-editing can be learned as well.
So how do we start? A good way to begin learning to self-edit is to remember that poetry is a concise art. The less said—if it is said well—the better. Many of us are guilty of pre-writing, over-writing, and just plain rambling on and one. Yet, poets need to compress their thoughts into the fewest words possible. And every single word in a poem should be important—should earn its place.
This means that poets must—in every case— find the perfect word to allow their readers to infer meaning. If you are someone who feels the need to spell things out in great expository detail for your audience, poetry is not your art. Try writing prose; more specifically— try writing persuasive essays. While short-stories and novels certainly give you more literary maneuvering room than poetry, concision is important there too.
If our goal is to publish our poetry for the public to read, we need to face reality: Poetry is a tougher read than prose. How many of you have read all of Homer? How many have read him more than once? Exactly, and none of us is Homer. For magazine publication, accepted poems are not generally Homeric epics. They are usually less than a page long. Anything over two pages is almost always tossed aside unread. Thus learning to compact our poetry is the first step to good self-editing.
Here’s an exercise to help you to begin to write concisely. Find one of your longer poems. Your goal is to cut its current word count in half. Here are some guidelines that may help you as you work your way through this task :
1) Show/don’t tell: If you let us hear the plink, plink on your car roof and woosh/woosh of windshield wipers, you don’t need to tell us you are driving through a rainstorm.
2) Eliminate redundant modifiers: “finish” implies “complete,” so the expression “completely finished” is redundant, as are “future plans” “free gifts,” and “split apart.”
3) Replace phrases with single words: “it is crucial that” = “must” or “At the present time” = “now.”
4) Eliminate structure words: such as prepositions, conjunctions, articles, relative pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns. However, be careful with these kinds of cuts. Some poets become so obsessive about eliminating
structure words that they wind up with Tontoisms—lines that are stilted with a Me-Jane-You-Tarzan kind of awkwardness. Remember balance and moderation are important in any kind of editing..
5) Eliminate unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, replacing them with concrete nouns and strong verbs: “The very old woman walked erratically down the little road way” becomes “The crone staggered down the path.”
6) Avoid “ing” words: Use “she dances” rather than “she is dancing”
So, were you successful in cutting that long poem in half ? If so, you are well on your way to writing more concisely. Now try cutting it in half again. Seriously! It can be done. Play with it. Watch how your poem can begin to have more power as almost every word becomes a descriptive detail or specific action. Cut the poem past the point you’re comfortable cutting. (Remember, you can always add cuts back in.) Have fun with this! When (with an objective editor’s eye) you believe your poem is done—the best it can be— think about submitting it to a few journals for possible publication. You may be surprised how quickly the piece is picked up.
Donna M. Marbach is a poet, an artist, and the owner of the small poetry press Palettes & Quills. Donna has published non-fiction, fiction and poetry in a variety of anthologies and periodicals. She was formerly the poetry editor of the national monthly writer’s magazine ByLine, and previously edited for FootHills Publishing. She co-founded Pensimientos, a bilingual literary magazine by and for middle school students in Guadalajara, Mexico, and is a co-founder and past president of Just Poets, Inc., a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the celebration of poetry and poets. Her work has appeared or is in Blueline, Hazmat Review, Homestead Review, Quercus Review, Poetry Quarterly, The MacGuffin, The Red Wheelbarrow, The Pearl, and more. She has been the featured poet in online poetry journal The Centrifugal Eye and co-authored with poet Dave Tilley, the chapbook, Twisted Pair, an experiment in collaborative poetry (Foothills,)and recently she has published a short story in the anthology After Dark (Diversion Press,) and writes a regular column for the children’s magazine, The Magic Dragon. Donna’s work was also selected for permanent display in the Poet Walk exhibit of Rochester New York’s Memorial Art Galler