Self Editing Poetry

At an early stage of your studies as a writer, you heard the advice “kill your darlings,” or some close variation of it. Get rid of fluff, even if you love the way the fluff feels. Excise wordiness, exorcize old favorites that have become routine fallback masked as “voice” or ”my style.”

But when and how to do the murderous act on your own writing? How can you become a ruthless and careful killer of your own daring words and lines?

1.) Write first, edit second.

Too many of us try to edit as we write, try to forge the perfect line, then move on to the next line, work work work to get it just right, then try to write the next perfect line. Grueling and stressful work!

The reason it’s so grueling and stressful is that the side of our brain which creates is not the same side which does logical work, and editing is logical.

So write first; just get your ideas out, not even stopping to check for spelling or grammar. Just write! Let your ideas and word flow out, spilling across the page or screen. Be very open and free with yourself.

Let what you write sit for a time, not thinking consciously of it. Do some non-writer activities like go for a walk, do some household chore, watch TV, cruise Facebook. Perhaps, if there is no imminent deadline you’re shooting for, put the item you’ve written away for days, weeks, or even longer. Notes, title ideas, scraps from possible future stories, lines of dialogue, or first drafts of whole poems can all be filed away for later editing. It’s quite possible that some other piece or assignment will come along and steal your time and attention away from what you were working on.

Go back and look at the piece with fresh, analytical eyes, the eyes of a critic, teacher, or editor. You have already created; now it’s time to forge.

Such things to consider would be wordiness, verb tensetypos, grammar and usage, laziness (have you used interesting, worthy words, words and phrases which will attract readers?), your topic (asking “so what?” here helps. In other words, an editor and reader, both of whom may be jaded, can well say “so what?” to your piece. What about it makes it HAVE to be accepted and read? What makes it stand out from the hundreds of other plays or poems they’ve read?), your piece’s point of view (usually either first person or third person), internal logic (does every line or scene lead to a logical conclusion?), and, for poetry, pattern/formal issues, meter, and rhyme.

I have let some snippets and drafts of poems sit for over a year and gone back to them and applied all of the above criteria as necessary to them, sometimes working them into further drafts or even final drafts, though more often forging the snippet or draft into something more usable, then putting it away for later editing.

Likewise, for poems or stories which have been rejected, before sending them out to other markets, I always go over them re-asking the above questions and re-examining them with my critical eye. Sometimes I will try a new point of view, find lines that don’t seem to fit as well as I once thought, re-worded lines, and so on.

2.) Thinking like a killer:

All editors are killers and all works submitted to them become victims. Okay, put in nicer terms, no editor can accept all work that is presented to them. They must reject some, maybe up to 99% of it, for the sake of their publication’s needs. What can a writer do to help their piece not get killed? Don’t let it become a victim: give it the tools it needs to become kill-proof. Think like a killer – er, editor.

Look at every one of the criteria listed in item 1 above, because all editors do. Does your story, article, or poem suffer in any area such as verb tenses shifting or the internal logic not following to a satisfying end? Be ruthless, because editors have to be. Only 5% of all poetry submitted for publication is accepted by editors. Some literary journals accept less than 1% of the stories sent to them, and most hover at about 5%.  Said another way, your work has about a 95% chance of being rejected – killed – by an editor.

Have you done your research on the market you’re sending to? Does your piece fit their theme or style?  Is your piece TOO much like other work already seen in print in that publication? (Work must fit in without seeming too familiar. This is a delicate and frustrating balance for both writers and editors.)

You’ve got to protect your work from potential rejection before sending it out into the world. Ruthless self-editing is the best way a writer can help your work be as strong as possible. Use the eyes of a critic and have the instinct of a killer. Look for any weakness in the piece and then strike!

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