A 5-Step Checklist For Revising Your Poems
So, you’ve just written a poem. You’ve crammed it with emotion, love, and artistry. You really believe in it. But if you’re being honest, you know it needs some work—maybe even (ouchy-ouch) a LOT of work. And yet you really have no idea where to begin with that dreaded process: revision.
While everyone’s revision methods may look a bit different, I’ve compiled a sort of checklist of action items to help you get started. In my own writing and publishing adventures, and in my experience hosting poetry workshops with writers at various stages of their development as poets, these have been some of the techniques that have yielded the best results.
Step One: Take a Break
I know, this one’s kind of a downer. When you’ve just made something really shimmery, you don’t want to put it away until you’re confident it’s really perfect. You might even be afraid that the magical vibes your new poem is giving off will have dissipated by the time you come back to it. But don’t worry: I’m not saying you have to stick it in a drawer for weeks or months. Just give it an overnight hiatus. Sleep on it at least once. Why? Because you need some time for those wonderful words you’ve strung together to stop ringing in your head so that you can hear them a little more like an outsider might hear them. You need to reach a point with your poem where you can’t still quote it word for word without a second thought. You need a little space—just the littlest bit—from your poem so you can hear it more objectively.
Step Two: Listen to Your Poem
When you sit back down at your desk or bedside table or steering wheel or favorite mossy log to begin revising your poem, don’t read it in your head at all. Instead, move straight into an out-loud reading, and I mean really go for it. Don’t just mumble the words. Pretend you’re reading that poem for a crowded room at an open-mic event. Put your heart into it. Let your poem roll off your tongue—two, three, maybe four times—and really listen to it.
What are you listening for? Well, anything that jumps out at you really. But try to listen for these things specifically:
A) Listen for the music. Effective poetry really is a magical, expansive kind of thing. It isn’t just words on a page. It’s not just about conveying information or even mood. It’s a song carrying its tune on the inside. Sometimes it’s a whole orchestra. The music of a poem is contained in its cadence, natural rhythms, and the inflections your word choices encourage. This isn’t just true of poems that rhyme, but can (and perhaps ought to be) true of all poetry. Try to locate musical elements in your poem and lean in to them because this quality is one of the big factors making your poem a poem and not just a paragraph with line breaks dropped into it.
B) Listen for dissonance. As you read through your poem out loud, listen for places where the poem doesn’t deliver the music your ear expects. If you’re writing a poem with a formal meter, listen for places where your tongue has to “hurry” through the syllables on a line in order to make them fit the set tempo, or places where the poem’s meter prompts you to pronounce a word incorrectly or to lay stress on the wrong syllable. If you’re writing a poem in free verse, listen for places where the musical flow of a list is disrupted by an unexpected sound.
C) Listen for mistakes. Listening to your poem read out loud can help you locate typos and repeated words your eyes gloss over without registering. When we’re reading, our brains tend to automatically “correct” mistakes and find what they expect to find, and this means you might be able to read your poem ten or fifteen times in your head without noticing you’ve written “The Road Bot Taken” when you meant to say “Not,” or “do not go gentle into that that good night.” (Sorry, Dylan Thomas. Robert Frost, I’m not sorry. “The Road Bot Taken” actually sounds like a poem I want to read.) Reading your poem out loud can also help you locate unnecessary thats—a word
that you probably don’t need to use nearly as often as you think you do!
Step Three: Cook The Raw Parts
Although poetry is often associated with raw passion and intense emotion, it’s also the most distilled form of literature, by which I mean it is the most deeply examined and thoroughly considered type of writing humans do. In poetry, every single word matters. Every single word (down to the thes and the ands) ought to be assessed individually to be sure it is the right word to say what you want to say. Because this is the nature of poetry, when a reader approaches your poem they have a right to “read into” the implications of your choices, to expect that every word you’ve given them has been deliberately selected, and that you have put thought into all the different ways your phrasing could potentially be understood.
Step Three is all about that. Sit with your poem and think about the words you’ve chosen. Ask yourself these questions:
- Are there words, phrases, sentences, or even whole stanzas that don’t really need to be there? Is each word you’ve landed on actually the best word to tell the story you’re telling?
- Are you overusing adjectives?
- Are there parts of your poem that came pouring out of your head in a passionate gust of feeling and now need to be toned down or switched up a little in order to tell your story in a more accurate or musical way?
- Have you given your reader enough puzzle pieces to make sense of your poem without robbing them of the joy of discovery, of figuring some things out on their own?
- Can you identify places where you’ve told your reader something you should be showing them instead?
- Are you telling your reader how to feel, or are you using story, imagery, and sensory language to subtly and authentically stir up the emotions you want to elicit?
Because poetry is such a condensed form of communication, a common problem for poets is making assumptions that our readers will be able to pick up on information we simply haven’t provided them. While you definitely don’t want to slash all that delicious mystery and ambiguity from your poem, you do want to spend some time making sure you haven’t inadvertently made your meaning impossible to decipher by using language that carries implications contrary to what you’re intending to convey. Do your best to apply this concept on your own, but we’ll come back to it again in Step Five.
Step Four: Look At Your Poem
Now that you’ve spent a good portion of time going over your poem with a fine-toothed comb and are feeling pretty happy about your word choices, put some time into thinking about how your poem appears on the page. Ask yourself these questions, and make sure you have a thoughtful answer for each of them:
- What kind of layout did you select for your poem and why?
- Do your line breaks contribute to the music and/or meaning of your poem, or did you just put them in whenever a line started feeling “long enough”? (Line breaks can be an effective way to give your poem layers of meaning, introduce ambiguity, or clear up confusion. If you haven’t used them to do any of these things, consider it.)
- Does your poem demonstrate a consistent punctuation plan? (Your poem can include punctuation or not, but don’t punctuate only part of it unless you really know what you’re doing!)
- If your poem doesn’t include punctuation, why do you feel this choice is appropriate for this particular poem? Are you certain your meaning is still as clear as you want it to be?
- Did you capitalize the first letter of each line in your poem? If so, is there a specific reason why you feel this is appropriate for your poem? (This capitalization format is a traditional layout many of us associate with poetry, but it isn’t very common among contemporary poets. This certainly isn’t to say you can’t use it or that it's never used anymore—Jericho Brown employs it to powerful effect in his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection The Tradition. But if you’re going to use it, I think it’s wise to make sure you can articulate what the format is contributing to your poem. Otherwise, your poem may end up feeling vaguely old-fashioned and inaccessible for a reason readers can’t quite put their finger on.)
Step Five: Get an Outside Opinion
While you may have just written a poem so personal you don’t plan on letting anyone else read it, it’s much more likely that by the time you’ve spent hours writing and revising a poem, you’ll be bursting with the desire to hear what someone else thinks of it—and probably a little terrified to ask them. This is actually a crucial part of the revision process, because until you get someone else’s take, you’re only able to see your poem from the perspective of someone who already knows all about it. Getting honest feedback from another person who can’t read your mind can help you determine whether your intended meaning is actually coming across, whether you’ve succeeded in telling your story in a way that grips and makes sense to someone who doesn’t already know it.
Of course, if you’re not enrolled in a poetry workshop or active in a writer’s group, it can be tough to get good feedback. Many people will be too nervous to tell you your poem doesn’t make sense to them, and you’ll have to make them feel at ease if you want to hear what they really think—and, scary as it may be, you do want to hear it if you care about becoming an effective communicator. One way you might be able to make them more comfortable is by asking them to tell you what part of the poem is their favorite and what part they think could be made better. Giving them an opportunity to lead with their positive feedback can help them find the confidence to tell you about the part of your poem that didn’t work for them.
A final tip on outside opinions: don’t revise your whole poem based on one person’s feedback! In every workshop I’ve attended or hosted, opinions about poems were varied and there was quite a lot of disagreement about proposed changes. If someone suggests changes you don’t feel happy about, get a second opinion.
Of course, one of the best ways to get not one but a whole handful of thoughtful outside opinions about your poetry is to sign up for a poetry workshop! I actually host online poetry workshops myself, and would love to get to know you and your poetry in one of these intimate 4-week workshops that are capped at five participants. If you think you might be interested in enrolling in an upcoming workshop, you can learn all about them here.
(And okay, yes, you got me: the photo above is a snapshot of me feeling cheerful on a windswept stroll along my favorite beach, inserted here because I want you to know how non-threatening I am in case you're thinking of signing up for a workshop but feeling so nervous about sharing your poetry with strangers. Busted. Now, I can't promise you it won't be scary, but I can promise I'll be doing everything in my power to make it gentle, rich, meaningful, and worth the risk.)