Editing poetry

One of the most important parts of writing a poem is editing it. Anyone can write, but only the best writers can re-write.

Editing is crucial. It can raise a poem from a bland observation to a critical, deep insight. Many of my poems have changed and been improved by writing and re-writing them over and over again. I find that early drafts are a sketch of an idea, lacking direction and detail. Later drafts help to add colour and depth to a poem.

The most re-written poem I have is currently on draft #33. The poem is Knots and branches. Here is the earliest draft I have of it:

First draft of Knots and branches, with working title Ribbons

Now compare it with the 33rd draft, which is the published draft:

Final draft of Knots and branches

Early drafts of a poem are mostly about figuring out what you want to say; later drafts are about figuring out the best way of saying what you want to say. And usually it takes a lot of editing and re-writing to get there.

It’s lucky that editing a poem is fairly straightforward.

There are two steps*:

  1. Figure out what’s wrong.
  2. Fix it.


Let’s go through that in a bit more detail. So step 1, read through the poem and highlight what it is (or where it is) that something isn’t right—those parts that make you wince when you read them. Just highlight them. Then look back through, focus just on the sections you have highlighted, and try and figure out why that section isn’t working. Is it the rhythm? A misplaced image? Poor flow from one idea to the next? Do you need more space between the images? Is the tone of it wrong? Something else?

Once you have identified what the issue is, you can then go about trying to improve it:

  • Do you need to edit the punctuation?
  • Would it help to re-order the images?
  • Do you need to introduce a new idea to the poem?
  • Do you need to link your ideas together better?

And that’s it: figure out what’s wrong, then fix it. It might take a while. Particularly step 2. But by first figuring out where the flaws in the poem are, you can then direct your attention to those sections, and explore the solutions to improve the poem.

You may need to repeat the process many times until the poem gets closer to the poem it has to be. And then you just have to think of a suitable title (and that’s a whole different issue!).


*This method can apply to most things in life.