I think I’m quite good at spotting what works and doesn’t work in other people’s poems, but I’m hopeless when trying to assess my own. To that end, I put this checklist together. It really helped me when self-editing my poetry collection: ‘Thirty Angry Ghosts’. Hopefully, it will help some of you too.
The main trick was to pretend that I didn’t write the poem I was editing and to imagine myself as an impartial reader in order to gain a critical perspective.
I also used the questions below to analyse some of my favourite poems alongside my own:
- Is the first line attention-grabbing? Does it need to be, or is a subtle approach more effective?
- How strong is the voice? Does it feel like someone is talking directly to the reader?
- Would the poem be stronger if some parts were cut/expanded?
- Are there any little words that could usefully be cut: e.g. that, the, a, was, just, really. Some editors call these ‘sticky’ words.
- Are any words or images repeated? If so, is it done for a reason?
- Does the poem have a beat and/or some form of musicality?
- Is there a rhyme scheme? Is it there for a reason or just for convention? Is it satisfying? Is it consistent?
- Is there a theme/central question that is explored in an unusual/interesting way?
- Does the poem wrestle with a problem? Does it ask questions? Does it try to make sense of the world in some way?
- Are there dynamics such as a shift in mood or pace? Are some parts more dramatic than others? Does the poem build to a climax?
- Is there an effective structure? Is the text set out well on the page? If there is enjambment (run on lines) do these work well – is the last word on each line strong enough?
- How does my use of punctuation and capital letters compare with other contemporary poems? Does using capital letters at the start of each line make my poems feel old-fashioned? (In the end I used standard punctuation although I changed my mind lots of times as I was editing).
- Are there strong sensory images to help immerse the reader in the world of my poem?
- Does it feel original? What sets it apart from similar poems?
- Are interesting sounds created by the letters, e.g. onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance.
- Are there any engaging oxymorons like ‘shouted whispers’ or ‘cold fire’ to interest the reader?
- Are there any effective metaphors and/or similes? Are they fresh and precise or awkward/cliched?
- Are the nouns specific? For example, is ‘sycamore’ used rather than ‘tree’. Would using more specific nouns improve the poem?
- Are the verbs strong? E.g. ‘slurped’ rather than ‘ate’. Would stronger/more specific verbs improve the poem?
- Would the poem be stronger with fewer adjectives, e.g. beautiful, multi-coloured, huge.
- Are there any adverbs that need cutting, e.g. ‘slowly’, ‘carefully’, ‘grumpily?’
- Is there a lot going on? Is it confusing? Would a narrower focus improve it?
- Does the end provide an effective, satisfactory resolution?
- Will readers will remember this poem next week? Or next year?Why/Why not?
Once I’d worked through these, I spent a lot of time reading my work out loud and looking at it in three different formats: on my mobile phone, on a printed page and on my laptop .
I also used software to read out my work on the computer. The latest version of Word has this function, and I also downloaded and used the free version of ‘Natural Reader’.
Lastly, I used ‘Pro Writing Aid’ to check the grammar. Here’s the link.
Once the poems were as good as I could make them, I asked two trusted friends to read through them and suggest other edits. I was really lucky to have two people that were willing to be critical. (Thanks Declan and Ian – I’m so grateful for all your hard work).
So… this is how I approached my edits. Has anyone else got any tips? I’d love to hear them.
Or maybe you don’t edit your poems. Some people seem to get it right the first time. I wish I did.
Maybe it’ll be easier with my next collection. I haven’t started one yet but, if this one does well, I’d like to do a follow up at some point.
If you’d like to buy a copy of ‘Thirty Angry Ghosts’, it’s available on Amazon for £7.99 as a paperback, £3.99 as an ebook and (if you’re on Kindle Unlimited), it’s free!
Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09J3QT5HF