4 Ways an Editor Can Help Improve Your Poetry

So you've written a poetry manuscript that you want to publish – now what?

One of the most common things I hear when I speak with poets is that they feel they don't need an editor. Their poetry is personal, and with such particular style and such a modest word count, how could an edit be of benefit?

While I agree that poetry can be very personal to the author – they've put in the metaphorical (or not so metaphorical) blood, sweat, and tears to craft those very personal lines – it's that closeness to their work that can be a double-edged sword.

This is because no writer can look at their own work with an objective eye. While you know the message you want to convey in your poetry, what images are supposed to be painted in your reader's mind, how you want your words to sound when they roll off your reader's tongue, sometimes those intentions don't come across on the page the way we think they do, and to ensure the necessary success of every word and line, every poet needs another set of eyes to point them in the right direction.

With so many techniques used in poetry, a second, expert eye can not only ensure your message is getting through, but can also assist by punching up a phrase or helping you make connections between themes or linguistic flourishes you may not have noticed.

Below are just four of the ways an editor can help improve your poetry and lend a hand in the revision process.

1. Line Breaks

In poetry, the end of a line doesn’t necessitate the end of a sentence (or vice versa!). Your reader's eyes will naturally pause when a line ends before moving forward, so poets will often use line breaks in a particular or surprising place to emphasize an important word or idea. If the building blocks of prose are sentences, then the building blocks of poetry are words, and the framework individual lines. Each line can be looked at as a unit of composition. It’s just as important to pay attention to your poem word by word, line by line as it is to look at the piece as a whole. An editor can help you create a more powerful poem by suggesting different line breaks, and pointing out words your reader's eyes will linger on.

Line breaks are also important as they help guide the pace at which someone will read your poem. For example, the longer the line, the faster it will read, which can help create tension as the reader’s eyes glide smoothly across the page and through the action. Shorter lines, or lines interrupted by punctuation, will slow the poem down. The pace you want someone to read your poem will depend on the content, the feel or tone of the poem, and your personal poetic style. An editor can help you experiment with your line breaks to show how breaking your line in different places changes the pace and effect your poem will have.

Poetry Lingo 101: Enjambment is the running of a sentence over two lines. A line break has been placed within the sentence and no punctuation interrupts the flow of the sentence form one line to another.

For example, in the first five lines of John Keats’ “Endymion”, three use enjambement:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

2. Word Choice

A common definition of poetry is: prose distilled to its bare essentials. Some of the magic of poetry, and what makes poetry so difficult to write, is that it can say in just a few lines what a whole paragraph of prose would need to say the same thing. Choosing strong verbs and nouns can help eliminate unnecessary words that clutter your poetry, but this can be difficult to do on your own. An editor can spot unnecessary words that weigh down your lines, and help you replace them with stronger, more accurate ones.

Just like in prose, adverbs are not your friend. There's a common saying in writing, "show don't tell," and this is especially true with poetry. Adverbs tell your reader what they are supposed to see from your line, as opposed to you showing them. If your word needs an adverb, your word of choice isn't strong enough. For example, "He ran quickly," versus, "He sprinted." Which is more evocative for you?

Poetry Lingo 101: Diction is the technical term used to describe ‘word choice’. For instance, “the diction employed by Emily Dickinson in her poem “Success is counted sweetest” evokes battle, war and the military. Words such as “Flag”, “victory”, “defeated”, “dying”, and “triumph” point to the subject though the poem does not directly refer to it.”

3. Grammar and Punctuation

The use of punctuation in poetry varies from writer to writer, and is often employed differently and less strictly than in prose. Some poets use punctuation to emphasize the pacing of a poem, while others don't use punctuation at all and depend on their line breaks to dictate pace. Periods and commas can be used to create pauses in your lines; punctuation placed in the middle of the line will create a different effect than if it was at the end. It's mostly a stylistic choice but, since poetry is so distilled, every punctuation mark you use can affect how your poetry is read and interpreted, and every punctuation mistake is that much more noticeable or confusing, and can in some cases completely alter the reader’s understanding. This is why having an editor's eye on your grammar and punctuation is vital. They can spot minor mistakes, which may not be noticeable to you but will be to your readers, and they can also suggest ways to use punctuation to your advantage that you may not have thought of on your own.

While many poets have avoided proper grammar usage with much success, there's great potential for it to be disastrous to your work. Until you're confident you're the next E.E. Cummings, having an editor's keen eye on your work can save you from embarrassing grammatical mistakes.

Poetry Lingo 101: Caesura is the term used to describe a deliberate pause in the middle of a line, created by punctuation such as a period or comma.

4. Themes, Imagery and Style

While working with an editor is great for getting assistance with the micro, or technical, aspects of your poetry, they are also very helpful with the macro elements of your work. They can read and assess each poem individually, as well as look at your collection as a whole to give their feedback on the themes in your work, their organization, introductory information and more.

Additionally, an editor can help you identify any clichés you may not have noticed yourself using. For instance, falling head over heels, or having ants in your pants, or, most often, anything to do with hearts, souls, tears or eyes, can turn your readers off. A cliché can just as easily take up space in a line as it can be built into an overall theme. There are some clever ways to use clichés, but it’s safest to have someone look over their use to ensure they’re working.

Another area where poets can have difficulty is in their use of metaphor. Similes are a form of metaphor that are fairly easy to use, and can be used to strengthen a line or an image. Metaphors, however, are a bit more challenging to use effectively. If used properly, they can demonstrate great depth within a line and can add value to your poem, but if they are used ineffectively they can lose your readers’ interest as they are asked to wade through vague imagery that doesn’t appear to make sense.

Poetry lingo 101: A simile is when you compare two things using the words “like” or “as”. A metaphor simply compares two unlike things by saying one is the other.

A simile: “The sun was like a bright white bulb that day.”

A metaphor: “The form of Hemings against the light of the doorway cast a long, broad shadow into the room. The angry dark bull stepped over the threshold breathing heavily, ready to reproach them for bothering him.”

While the simile very directly compares the sun to a bulb, the metaphor likening Hemings to a bull is more subtle and takes more work to set up--and pull off! One of the delights of working with an editor is that you can take chances with your imagery that your editor can help you assess and perfect.

Written by Kim Schacht, FriesenPress Publishing Consultant
Edited by Kate Juniper, FriesenPress Editing & Illustrations Coordinator