Poetry Editing – Make Every Word Work


Poetry editing is a specialised skill. I’ve spent the last couple of months doing the final edits on my latest collection, This Is Not Therapy. My aim is to make sure that every word earns its keep. You can get away with repetitions and a certain looseness in the heat of a performance that lessen the power of a piece on the page.

For a process that mostly involves changing one or two words, adding commas, changing line breaks, it can take a long time. The reason being, I know the poems so well by now that every time I make a change, I need to step away from it for a minimum of a couple of days. This allows me to re-approach it with fresh eyes, to see if the change works.

This is the last stage of the editing process. Previously I have written and re-written these pieces, maybe from a different entry point, swapped verses around, split a poem in two and written two fresh poems for each half. I’ve tested them out loud, to myself and the poor dogs, and on audiences. I listen for the clunks, which I experience as a twinge in my belly. I listen to see if I lose connection with the words and am just hurrying to get to the end, or if the audience slumps at any point during it.

I’ve sent the poems out to friendly readers, both experienced writers and enthusiastic non-writers. Usually I’ll send a piece out to two or three people and note their reactions. I don’t take their corrections or responses as gospel, but I do test their suggestions out to see if I agree with them. I’ve learnt that when I  think, ‘No, you’re wrong about that,’ in a defensive way to one of my reader’s suggestions, that there is probably something there for me. It might not be absolutely what they suggested, but they will have cottoned on to the presence of a clunk, even if they haven’t accurately identified it.

In this final stage, I work with a copy editor. She is meticulous about grammar and also picks me up on certain words that are fluffy or vague. 

Although it’s quite frustrating that every time I think I’m finished, I find I’m not, it’s also gratifying to keep coming back and polishing some more. The most common complaint I hear from first time published poets is that they wish they had been more stringent with their editing. A year down the line, they are performing a poem and wince when they get to a certain line, realising that it doesn’t work. But now it is in print.

Of course, there’s also danger in over-editing. Paul Gardner said, ‘A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.’ The same applies to a poem. You will know when you have reached an interesting place when you feel an ‘Ahhh’ feeling landing in your stomach. 

At least, that’s how it feels to me. Your body may speak differently to you. Get to know your own sense of ‘landing’, of feeling at one with the world. That is how you will know when your poem is done.

Tina Sederholm is a poet, raconteur and theatre-maker. Creator of four successful solo shows that have been reviewed as ‘Utterly enthralling’ *****(edfringe review.com), ‘Stunning…beautifully humbling’ ***** (ThreeWeeks) and ‘A Must-See Show’ (Fringe Review). Her latest poetry collection, This is Not Therapy is available from www.tinasederholm.com and fine bookstores everywhere. When not creating her own work, she works as a poetry and prose editor and story consultant. Email tina@tinasederholm.com for more information on ways she can assist you with your latest book, collection, script or poem.