Tips for Revising Poems

As my poetry writing workshop draws to a close, I’ve been collecting the best tips from all of my workshops into a single place where I can refer back to them when I’m writing on my own. Revision is one of the hardest parts of writing, and one everybody sometimes needs some help on. Here’s a list of the best tips I’ve gotten over the past couple of years on revising poems.

1. Revision = Re – Vision! Yes, a new vision for the poem. Because, let’s face it, it’s pretty rare that the first vision falls into our laps perfect and fully-formed. Or even halfway to perfect and fully-formed. If the poem changes drastically during the revision process, that’s OK!

2. What is the poem as it is, on the page, and not in your head? The best way to get a clear picture of this is to let the poem sit for a while. Look at it again after a few weeks.

3. Find “the heat,” as my last workshop instructor used to say. Where is the poem working best?

4. Check your phrasing and style throughout the poem. Is it consistent?

5. Replace most, if not all, verbals (-ing words) and adverbs(ly’s) with precise verbs. Another thing my last workshop instructor used to say was “Your verbs should have force, they shouldn’t be forcing things.”

6. Do the words you have used have both the right denotation (definition) and the right connotation (implications and associations)?

7. Does every word count? Try taking out the connecting words (and, like, as, is, the) and see what happens. This often works magic for me. Taking out anything extra in the poem will make it more highly charged.

8. Pinpoint and get rid of any cliches. If there’s a cliched image that you really love, find a way to make it deeper or more surprising than the usual representation.

9. What is the motion in your poem? Is something passing by? Rising? Falling? Journeying into the sunset? Make sure the motion is consistent throughout the poem.

10. Take out any explanation in the poem. You don’t want to tell your reader what to think, but to show them.

11. Most importantly, have you discovered what your images are trying to say? Can you play up this message without telling it to your audience? And even if you haven’t yet discovered what your poem is saying, have you discovered something new about yourself or the world?

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