How is editing poetry different to editing prose?

Editing poetry is quite different to editing non-fiction or fiction (prose).

Different level of collaboration

When line or copy editing prose, collaboration is not essential, although some collaboration with the author is usual during the structural editing stages. When editing poetry, I believe it is essential to collaborate closely with the poet; I call this process ‘collaborative poetry editing’.

Different rules

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.

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 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

When editing poetry, the editor also needs to:

  • have extensive experience in reading and writing poetry
  • have ‘poetic instinct’ in addition to a good understanding of metre
  • ensure the words, punctuation and spacing of the poem perfectly convey the poet’s exact meaning to the reader
  • be honest with the poet 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 choice of words at all times, even when suggesting improvements to those words.

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