The process for editing another person’s poetry
Editing poetry written by someone else is very different from editing your own poetry. It requires not only poetic instinct and experience in reading and writing poetry, but also an understanding of the role of editor.
In my view, the only 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, I workshop and edit the poem with the poet, using a three-stage process: the ‘red pen’ stage; the consultation/editing stage; and the final stage of capturing the pauses and reflections.
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 consultation/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
After the poem has been edited so that the poet is happy with all the words and order of those words, and we are confident there won’t be any other changes, it’s time 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.
My experience in writing and editing poetry
I have been reading and writing poetry since I was five. I wrote books and books of handwritten poetry and stories throughout my childhood. I didn’t write poetry for years then studied poetry as part of my Bachelor of Arts (English Literature) degree: this inspired me to start writing poetry again. I performed my poems at spoken word events regularly in the 1990s. I have been editing other people’s poetry since 2003.
If you would like to speak to me about the methods I use to edit poetry, my rates and/or my experience in editing poetry, please give me a call on 0419 337 824 or send me an email via our Contact Us page.
Note: This article is about one method that can be used to edit another person’s poetry. Stay tuned for my upcoming article about how to edit your own poetry.
Edited and proofread by Dee Sansom, On Time Typing.
Photograph: Darren Kane. Copyright image: Sally-Anne Watson Kane.
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