Editing poetry compared to non-fiction or prose

Editing non-fiction or prose (fiction) is quite different from editing poetry, as demonstrated below.

  • When line or copy editing non-fiction or prose, collaboration is not essential, although some collaboration with the author is usual during the structural editing stages. When editing poetry, it is essential to collaborate closely with the poet; I call this process ‘collaborative poetry editing’.
  • When line or copy editing, one of the editor’s main tasks is to ensure grammar, spelling and punctuation are corrected in accordance with the rules outlined in the national or organisational style manual. When editing poetry,  the usual rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation do not apply.
  • When line or copy editing non-fiction, ‘made up words’ (neologisms) are not allowed unless the author has explained exactly what they mean by that term. When editing fiction, neologisms may or may not be allowed, depending on the style and type of audience. When editing poetry, neologisms made up by the poet can be really helpful in conveying the poet’s intended meaning to the reader and are definitely ‘allowed’.
  • The main role of the editor is to follow the usual rules of editing prose and non-fiction. When editing poetry, the usual rules do not apply; for example, in poetry, keeping to the metre of the poem is far more important than ensuring that the words used are grammatically correct. The only universal rule of poetry editing is simply to ensure the poet’s personal meaning and the essence of their poem is conveyed to the reader as clearly (and as poetically) as possible.

Other aspects of editing poetry (different from editing non-fiction or prose)

When editing poetry, the editor needs to: *

  • ensure the words, punctuation and spacing of the poem perfectly convey the poet’s exact meaning to the reader – regardless of whether or not those aspects are technically correct
  • have extensive experience in reading and writing poetry
  • have ‘poetic instinct’ in addition to a good understanding of metre
  • work very collaboratively with the poet, and be honest about what ‘sounds’ right and what doesn’t; which stanzas are the best and which ones need work, and why; words that need to be improved or deleted
  • be respectful of the poet’s views, and original and ultimate choice of words, at all times, even while suggesting improvements to those words.

This description of the editor’s role and process when editing poetry is based on my own method of editing poetry which I call ‘collaborative poetry editing’. Most editors use less collaborative methods when editing poetry.

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