Collaborative poetry editing

Poems are personal and subjective. The best way to edit someone else’s poem, or collection of poems, is to edit it (a) not making actual corrections to the poem but, rather, suggest improvements or changes to the poem/s (much like the approach you take when doing a structural or developmental edit), and/or (b) edit it in very close consultation with the poet, remembering at all times it is their poem, not yours.

When editing a poem, or manuscript for a book of poetry, I use one or more of the three-step collaborative poetry editing‘ method which is:

  1. ‘red pen’ (Track Changes) stage (non-verbal),
  2. collaborative editing stage (verbal), and
  3. capturing the pauses and inflections stage (verbal).

1. The ‘red pen’ stage (non-verbal)

I go through the poem with a ‘red pen’ – or, using the online method, using Track Changes – to insert ‘comments’ and suggest improvements. In fact, my usual method is to first, print out the poem and read it in hardcopy, making notes to self about it (in a red pen) as I go. Second, I put it on a shelf and let my subconscious think about it for a couple of days. Third, I edit it on the computer (using Track Changes comments to make suggestions).

The suggestions to the poet may include:

  • Non-negotiable corrections (incorrect spelling, or repetition or punctuation that jars, or just doesn’t suit the poem)
  • improvements or changes (the poet needs to find a better word)
  • requesting clarification (if it’s unclear) of what the poet wants to express through certain words or phrases and/or the whole poem
  • noting places where the poem jars, which may be because of the sound of a word, or the meter is ‘wrong’, or the word is a cliche, or it doesn’t make sense
  • major changes the editor thinks it worth considering, to improve the poet’s meaning; these may include changing the order of stanzas, deleting a line or a  stanza, changing the title to something that epitomises the poem).

2. The collaborative editing stage (verbal)

Often the above ‘track changes’ comments method is all the poet needs to then self-edit the poem further, themselves.

But if the poet wants or needs verbal explanation or collaboration, to give them clearer feedback and suggestions, we go through the poem and/or my suggestions together, verbally (via telephone, Zoom or other online method). This consultation is a cross between a self-editing coaching session and a collaborative method of helping them edit their poem/s. Once I have worked with them on one or two poems verbally, the poet is usually armed with the information they need to self-edit the rest of their poems themselves.

The verbal stage of the collaborative editing stage goes like this.

  • During the verbal consultation, the poet and I discuss each of my suggestions (in Track Changes ‘comments’ or in my hardcopy print out) on possible ways to improve the poem. 
  • I ask them to clarify the intended meaning of any words or phrases I think are ambiguous and let them decide whether to change those words or leave them as they are. Usually, during the session, I am typing in their verbal corrections (e.g. on Zoom, using Screenshare; or if we are consulting via telephone, I type their corrections into the poem on my computer). 
  • Where words don’t ‘ring true’ or are cliches, I encourage the poet to come up with alternative words that are clearer, more original and/or a better fit with the metre or style of the poem.
  • I will suggest major changes if I believe they will improve the poem. For example, if I consider two stanzas should be swapped around, or a word, line or stanza needs to be deleted, I will suggest this and explain why. (With some clients, this explanation is relayed more clearly verbally, than in writing.)

In most cases, there is no right or wrong way to say what the poet wants to say. So, during and after consulting with the poet, it’s up to the poet to decide which changes to make, and how to finalise the poem.

3. The final stage (optional) – capturing the pauses and inflections

If and when the poet is happy with all the words in the poem and how they are placed, the punctuation in the poem needs to be finalised. This can be done by the poet, alone, or in collaboration with the editor.

When I collaborate with the poet verbally, to finalise the poem:

  • While we consult (via the phone or Zoom or other method), I type any corrections they decide to make into their poem.
  • First, I ask the poet to read their poem out loud. As they recite, I capture – through the pauses and inflections in their voice – the punctuation (or in some cases, line endings or stanza breaks) that are indicated by the way they read it out. I then tell them any punctuation corrections I ‘heard’ in their recital, and help them decide whether to make those corrections. Note: a line break can sometimes be used instead of inserting a comma or full stop.
  • If the poet ‘skips’ a word, or introduces a word that isn’t in the typed poem, when reading it aloud, I tell them about it. Usually they are unaware of the different words they read out, from the word on the page. I may ask them to read out that section again, to see how it sounds one way or the other. More often than not, with my assistance, the poet decides that the different words they read out aloud sound better than typed version, and so I make those corrections to the typed version of the poem.
  • If the poet stresses a word during their recital, I may suggest to them ways to make that word stand out; for example, place the word on its own line, or type the word in a different font.
  • Once we have corrected the punctuation and line breaks during their recital of the poem, I ask the poet to read their poem out loud again so I can double-check and revise those corrections. I may then read their poem back to them so they can hear how the punctuation changes the way someone else reads it.
  • Going through the poem together in this way ensures the poem is punctuated in such a way that it represents the way the poet reads their poem themselves – which, of course, makes it more likely that when someone reads their poem, they will ‘get’ the poem, and understand the poet’s intended meaning.

Note: I have developed the above 3-stage method of collaborative poetry editing which is, at the same time, coaching poets in editing their own poetry. Feedback from all the poets I have worked with shows that each stage can work really well by itself, and also that when all three stages are applied to a poem, it works really well and the outcome (in terms of learning for the poet, and also in terms of the edited poem itself) is very good.

Other methods of editing poetry

I have heard some poetry editors say they hardly edit a person’s poem at all because poems are so subjective, it is entirely up to the poet how they want to present their poem (with the exception of typos, which can and should be corrected) – that, in general, an editor should not suggest changes or improvements to their poem.

I don’t agree with this view for a few reasons:

  1. Firstly, the aim of any poem that a poet wants to publish is not just self-talk. The aim is to relay their message to their intended audience. It is hard for a poet to know if their message is hitting the mark, without feedback. That is what a poetry editor is for: to give the poet feedback as to whether their poem ‘works’ or not, and if there are bits that don’t ‘work’, or jar, tell them.
  2. An experienced poetry editor is used to ensuring the poet maintains full ownership and control over their poems. They provide feedback and suggestions to the poet so the poet can improve their own poem, so that it not only reflects the poet’s thoughts or feelings but also relays those thoughts or feelings in the best possible way, to the reader.
  3. Some poets are excellent at writing poetry but they do not have good knowledge of punctuation. Poor or incorrect punctuation can prevent the reader from understanding the message, or can create a jarring effect which prevents the reader from appreciating the poem or the poet’s message. It is difficult for even the most experienced poets to make sure their poem has no typos and is punctuated correction. That’s what an editors is for.

Some poems are not destined to be read by others, but only performed by the poet themselves. These poems do not have to be punctuated correction and they can contain typos and spelling errors, because the only person who will see those errors is the poet. However, these poems may contain a word or line that doesn’t relay the poet’s meaning perfectly, or is a cliche; a word or line that would work better if it was moved to a different stanza; or a word or line that would be better off deleted from the poem altogether. This is because no matter how committed the poet, it is very hard to see the trees for the woods when you are reviewing your own poem. That’s what an editor is for.

My experience in editing poetry and coaching poets in self-editing their own poetry

Most editors are not experienced in editing poetry, and do not know how to edit poetry.

Editing poetry written by someone else (rather than yourself) requires poetic instinct, years of experience in reading others’ poetry, and general editing experience. If the poetry editor also happens to be a practising poet, that is a bonus.

Sally-Anne Watson Kane (On Time Typing, Editing and Proofreading) has been reading and writing poetry her whole life, and editing other people’s poetry for 25 years.

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Photograph: Darren Kane.  Copyright image: Sally-Anne Watson Kane.

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