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Collaborative poetry editing

Editing poetry written by someone else is very different from editing your own poetry. It requires poetic instinct, years of experience in reading poetry, and extensive general editing experience. And if the poetry editor also has experience in writing poetry themselves, that is a bonus.

One way to edit something as personal and subjective as a poem is to edit it in very close consultation with the poet. Rather than editing the poem for the poet, or providing suggestions to the poet in writing, I edit the poem in close consultation with the poet. I call this process collaborative poetry editing‘.

Collaborative poetry editing

Collaborative poetry editing requires three stages: the ‘red pen’ stage; the collaborative editing stage; and the final stage of capturing the pauses and inflections on paper.

The ‘red pen’ stage

I go through the poem with a red pen inserting comments. My ‘red pen’ corrections and suggestions for the poem may include:

  • making 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 either through certain words or phrases, and/or the whole poem
  • if the poem has a metre, noting places where the metre isn’t correct
  • making any major changes that may improve the poem (e.g. moving the order of stanzas around, deleting a line or stanza or changing the title).

The collaborative editing stage

  • 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.

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.

  • 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. While I have never heard of anyone else using this method, it has worked extremely well for the poets I have worked with. 

Other methods of editing your 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 provide the poet with feedback and suggestions for further editing.

For example, for some clients, I edit their poetry using Track Changes so the poet can see exactly what corrections I have made, and provide detailed explanations, suggestions and feedback using the Track Changes ‘comments’ tool. The poet can then accept or reject my corrections, and review my ‘comments’ to decide on further editing corrections or improvements.

There is another option for poets who can’t afford to hire an editor to edit their poetry for them. I offer coaching in ‘how to self-edit your own poetry’. In the past, I have coached poets in how to edit their poems, via telephone or via Zoom sessions (using the Sharescreen tool), and this has given them the skills they need to edit the rest of their poems themselves.

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

Go to: Our experience in poetry – editing and coaching in self-editing.

If you would like to speak to us about our methods, coaching or rates, contact us

You are welcome to visit our poetry editing page: Poetry Editing and Self-Publishing Australia (PESPA).

Edited and proofread by Dee Sansom, On Time Typing.

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


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