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Collaborative poetry editing

One way to edit something as personal and subjective as a poem, or a collection of poems, is to edit it in very close consultation with the poet.

When editing a poem or manuscript for a book of poetry, I use a method that I call collaborative poetry editing‘.

Collaborative poetry editing requires three stages:

  1. the ‘red pen’ (Track Changes) stage,
  2. the collaborative editing stage, and
  3. the final stage of capturing the pauses and inflections on paper.

1. The ‘red pen’ stage

I go through the poem with a ‘red pen’ – which nowadays means using Track Changes – to insert ‘comments’ and suggest corrections or improvements.

These corrections and suggestions for the poem may include:

  • necessary corrections (incorrect spelling, or repetition that doesn’t suit the poem)
  • suggesting improvements to words/phrases
  • requesting clarification from the poet on what they want to express through certain words or phrases, and/or the whole poem
  • noting places where the metre isn’t correct
  • any major changes that may improve the poem (e.g. changing the order of stanzas, deleting a line or stanza, or changing the title).

Sometimes I edit all the poems using Track Changes and don’t consult with the client about those suggestions or corrections, and that also works well. It depends very much on how polished the poems already are, and on the client.

2. The collaborative editing stage

Unless the poems have already been self-edited to a pretty high degree, this collaborative editing stage is highly recommended, for at least some of the poems.

During this stage,  I collaborate with the poet on the suggested corrections and improvements noted in Track Changes, and help them to come up with the right words. The session is, in a way, a coaching session in how to edit their poems. I usually only have to go through one or two poems with the poet,  to give them the knowledge they need to self-edit the rest of their poems to quite a high level.

The collaborative editing stage goes like this:

  • I organise an editing consultation with the poet. This may be via telephone or face to face.
  • During the consultation, the poet and I discuss each of my suggestions on ways to improve the poem. 
  •  I explain to the poet the corrections that are necessary, and why.
  • I ask them to clarify the intended meaning of any words or phrases I think are ambiguous and, together, we decide whether to change those words or leave them as they are.
  • Where words need to be clarified, 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 say so and explain why.
  • Based on our decisions, I scribe those corrections into the poem as we speak. 

But poetry is subjective. In some cases, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things but in many cases, there is no right or wrong way to say what the poet wants to say. After giving them my advice and the reasons for that advice, it’s up to the poet to decide what to do.

3. The final stage – capturing the pauses and inflections

Once the poet is happy with all the words in the poem and the order of those words, and we are confident the poem doesn’t need any other changes to the text, we collaborate with the poet to finalise the poem.

Again, our collaboration is at the same time a coaching session in what to look for, what to improve and how to improve it, when perfecting your poem.

  • First, I ask the poet to read their poem to me out loud. As they recite, I capture – through the pauses and inflections in their voice – the ‘punctuation’ that they are speaking. At the same time, I transpose that verbal ‘punctuation’ onto the page.
  • If they pause between two words, I type in the punctuation that best suits the style or that part of the poem; this might be a comma, semicolon or full stop; or, if the pause signals to me that a new line is required for the next word, I’ll insert a carriage return.
  • If the poet stresses a word during their recital, I may suggest making that word stand out; for example, it could be placed on its own line or typed in capitals or a different font. Sometimes, the ‘feeling’ that comes through their voice, rather than the words themselves, will show me how to punctuate a line or sentence. Sometimes it is clear that the poem would be best with no punctuation at all; instead, using the placement of words on different lines to perform the task of punctuation.
  • Once I have inserted the punctuation during their recital of the poem, I ask the poet to read their poem out loud again so I can double-check and re-correct the punctuation. I may then read their poem back to them so they can hear for themselves how the punctuation is working.
  • Going through the poem together in this way two or three times is usually sufficient to perfect the punctuation, which will enable the poem to perfectly represent the poet’s meaning or intention.

Note: I have developed the above method of collaborative poetry editing which is at the same time a coaching session in editing your own poetry. While I have never heard of anyone else using this method, it has worked extremely well for all of the poets I have worked with. 

Other methods of editing poetry

Sometimes it is not practical for a poet to use the above collaborative consultation  method to get their poetry edited, because of budgetary or time constraints. Or sometimes the poet does not want to be involved in verbal consultations because they are more comfortable working with text.

If that is the case, less consultative methods can be used to edit poetry and still provide the poet with feedback and suggestions for further editing:

For example, the editor can edit all the poems using ‘Track Changes’, and submit the edited document to the poet. It is up to the poet to decide whether to accept the changes, and come up with the more descriptive words, or words with more or fewer syllables, or other different types of words that  the editor has suggested they find, to improve the poem. Early-career poets may find this difficult; experienced poets will find it far less challenging.

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

Editing poetry written by someone else (rather than yourself) requires poetic instinct, years of experience in reading poetry, and general editing experience. If the poetry editor also has experience in writing their own poetry, that is a bonus. Sally-Anne Watson Kane has been reading and writing poetry her whole life, and editing other people’s poetry for over 20 years.

Edited and proofread by Dee Sansom, On Time Typing.

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


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