Saturday, June 13, 2015

Prompt #226 – "Hip" Tips for Editing Your Poems

Often when I conduct poetry workshops, I give participants the following list—I thought you might find these tips helpful in revising, editing, and perfecting your poems. The idea this week is to go back to an already-written poem and make it stronger.

Here Are the Tips:

1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.
7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

8. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

9. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.

10. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.)


1. This week, I’d like you to take a look at one or more poems that you’ve already written, and apply the five items above as a kind of checklist for editing.

2. Go through your poem (s) one item at a time and see if there are changes you can make based on the "high five" list.

3. After you’ve finished, compare your original version and the newly edited one. Is one stronger than the other?

4. Another interesting way to go about this is to ask a poet friend to do the exercise with you. Instead of you editing your own poems, exchange poems and see what edits you both come up with for each other.


1. Be sure to work with a poem that you finished or put aside some time ago. Don’t try to work with a new poem or a poem in process.

2. Be as objective as you can (I know, that's not easy when working with your own poems).


  1. Fantastic editing tips -- wonderful to print out and keep on our desks. A big thank you!

    1. So glad you like them, Jamie. I like your idea of printing the tips out and keeping them handy. Hope that works for you!

  2. So helpful! Thank you!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sandy! It's good to know that you find the tips helpful.

  3. Amita Jayaraman (Mumbai)June 16, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    These tips are most helpful. My thanks to you, Adele.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Amita. I'm very happy to know that you find the ideas helpful!

  4. Great tips! In particular -- "If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge." Thank you, Adele :)

    1. Hello, Lewis! I like those too—the idea is to take chances and not be afraid to experiment. Hope you're doing some writing and enjoying these days last days of spring.