" Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear."
— Patricia Fuller
Hi, I'm A.I. ANNIE, your writing guide
Writing a poem combines inspiration and craft. Here are 9 steps that will take you from first draft to the final edit before publication.
1. Take Your Time
a) After the rush of inspiration you have a bunch of lines on a page. It's rare that a poem like a hot cake comes clean baked out of the tin. Feel good about getting your thoughts and feelings out.
b) The mood of the first write is not the mood of the first edit.
c) The first step is to take a metaphorical step back and put what you have written away in a draw or stored on your hard drive.
d) Why? Because it is far better to come back to something raw with a little dispassion and detachment, otherwise your first edit could damage what you have written.
The First Review
a) Read through the draft from beginning to end.
b) The first mission of your edit is to recognise that a poem is like a chain that needs strong link. Weak links can be found in the poems grammatical structure, repetitive ideas that don't advance the poem, cliches and unoriginal expressions.
c) What lines represent the emotion core of your poem? Make a note.
d) Do these lines stand out from the rest of the poem?
e) Are there any lines that seem weaker than the core statement?
The Beginning and End Test
a) Think of your first lines as dirty water when turning on a rusty tap. Just as it's best to let the brown water run clean recognize your first lines may be (not always) rusty water and not central to your topic.
b) Cover them up and see if the next lines work regardless.
c) Now look at the last lines. Often when writing, we don't quite recognise whether or not the poem has ended. Just as a runner crosses the line he or she will take some extra steps before coming to a standstill. Is your ending like the runner's after steps?
d) Your ending needs to be as clear and inevitable as your opening lines. If the last lines are weak look back to see if an earlier line is where the poem crossed the winning line.
Read the Poem Aloud
a) Reading aloud is one of the most powerful editing techniques and reminds us that poetry began as oral art before writing was invented. The majority of poets also love to read their poems aloud before audiences.
b) The way a poem reads on the page isn't how it necessarily sounds. Reading it aloud will give you clues on its strengths and weaknesses.
c) Does it flow? Does it need new punctuation? Is there a missing image or idea that connects to the next?
d) Are there any words that don't feel necessary eg. excess adjectives or repetitive ideas that don't advance the poem? After making changes how does it read?
Write the Poem out in Prose
a) Remove the line breaks and merge them in a paragraph. Removing the line breaks will reveal if there is any prosaic rhythm. This is particularly the case with free verse.
b) Poetry can break grammatical rules but make that the exception rather than the norm. Reading to yourself helps to spot poor grammatical structure.
c) A poem is created through a combination of factors: line rhythm or metre. Poems also use imagery, similes, metaphors and other devices. Bunched together you will be able to identify them more easily.
d) It can also be measured by the frequent use of sound devices such as alliteration, assonance and consonance which is a form on internal rhyming and sound play.
Add or Substract for Continuity
a) Now that you have felt the flow of the poem you will be able to identify if there any holes or gaps. Have you conveyed anything in the poem that has been said many times before? If so, this is your cliche red alert.
c) Beware of lazy language. In the rush to pen something down you may have jumped ahead without fleshing out your ideas. In the same way, a choreographer may compose the general shape of a movement narrative but will come back later to articulate and link together each part. A poem is a dance composed of sequenced moves. Work through the parts, line by line.
d) Raw drafts are unevenly written. There is nothing wrong here. When you have identified the more original lines and phrases make them your quality standard and measure other lines by them.
Test Your Line Breaks
a) Look at the end of every line. Review how one line ends and a new line begins. Remember - a line is not necessarily a sentence.
b) If each thought is complete at the end of a line, marked with a period or semicolon, your lines are end-stopped.
c) If one thought continues from one line to the next, you are using enjambment which is a technique that adds wordplay and drama to a poem, line by line.
d) Read the poem through again to recheck how your poem flows from one line to the next.
e) If the poem feels clunky, try the opposite type of line break to see if it’s a better fit with your words and rhythm.
Test Your Line Breaks
a) How does your poem look on the page?
b) Written down, a poem should look visually pleasing. If writing in a formal way that will be determined by fixed form styles and looks: a haiku in English will usually have 3 lines; a poem in rhyming couplets may have a defined line length and spaces between; or perhaps you are writing a concrete shape poem. The visual idea of the poem should communicate clearly.
c) Print out your poem and look at its layout on the page. Notice the amount and shape of white space around the poem.
d) Look at the stanza breaks. Are they arbitrary or does the shape of the poem contribute to the meaning? Poems that follow a metrical form should have lines of similar lengths.