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Redrafting Part 2: Redrafting a Poem

Following on from my recent blog about redrafting, this blog focuses specifically on redrafting poetry. It isn’t a list of rules, so much as a few things to think about to help bring out the best in your poems.

  1. Reading your poem out loud often highlights any parts that don’t flow quite as they should. If you stumble over any words or phrases consider whether they can be rewritten or if the word order could be altered to improve the rhythm.
  2. Think about sound. There’s more to rhyme than strong end-of-the-line rhyme, so even if your poem isn’t following a fixed rhyme scheme, consider your use of other sonic effects such as alliteration, assonance, half rhyme and repeated words: they all contribute to the sound of your poem. Don’t think a poem either rhymes or doesn’t: sound contributes enormously to the meaning and tone of all poems.
  3. Give the title due consideration – it’s a key part of the poem. Try not to repeat the title in the first line as this can sound repetitive. Also avoid giving away the last line in the title: ideally a poem takes the reader (and writer) on a journey, so you don’t want to begin with the destination. A title can bring useful information to a poem; for example, it could be the name of a location (‘San Francisco’ or ‘In the Launderette’) which you then don’t need to explain in the poem itself. A title may also bring a completely new dimension to a poem. American poet Jorie Graham has a poem describing a river, but its title is ‘Wanting a Child’ which makes you read the poem completely differently.
  4. Delete the first stanza (I’m only half-joking). I often find I’ve written my way into a poem, so cutting the first stanza offers a much bolder way to begin. Be brave! Likewise, delete the last stanza. So often I’ve already said what I needed to say, there’s no need to ‘round things off’. Poems don’t need conclusions.
  5. Delete extraneous words. Prune prune prune! And remember to ‘murder your darlings’ – those images or phrases you’re so fond of that you’re blinded to the fact they just don’t work in this particular poem. They aren’t necessarily wasted, they just haven’t found the right home yet. That said, editing a poem isn’t only about cutting – sometimes an idea needs fleshing a bit more out more or pushing to a new level of thought. It’s a balance between making every word work and at the same time including enough texture and music to create a world.
  6. Delete clichés and predictable ideas. A poem should give the reader a fresh take on the world. First thought, worst thought? Not always, but often.
  7. Can you turn any similes into metaphors by deleting words such as ‘like’ or ‘as’? A metaphor can be more powerful than a simile: for example, ‘Her hand was a map of veins’ is more striking image than ‘The veins of her hands were like a map’.
  8. Look at your line breaks. A poem is made up of the white space as well as words, and the white space represents silence, a very powerful tool for writers. The last word of each line echoes into this silence (even more so at the end of each stanza and the last word of the poem) and these end words get more attention from the reader than any other word in the line, including the first word. Make sure you end the line on a word that warrants this extra attention and avoid breaking on insignificant words (e.g. is, a, an, that, of, etc.) unless you’re doing so for a specific reason.
  9. Consider the shape of your poem – even free verse has form, but the form is of the poet’s own devising. Play around with your line lengths, especially if your line breaks aren’t working. Consider your stanza lengths too – does the poem suit being one block of text, or would it like a bit of fresh air blowing between its images, some extra silence in which to echo?
  10. Most importantly, put it in the ‘magic drawer’ and come back to it after a break. Don the fabled ‘fresh eyes’ and try to read it as if it was written by someone else and you’d never seen it before. Almost impossible, but worth attempting as you nearly always spot something you can improve.

For more thoughts on redrafting poems, take a look at the experiences of poets Jonathan Edwards, Kim Moore (via Abegail Morley’s blog) and Liz Berry. You’ll notice the same ideas crop up again and again: that writing poetry is a messy business, that saving your old drafts is really important, and a poem is never really finished, only abandoned. The most important thing is to use whatever tactics work for you.
¹A statement variously attributed to W.H. Auden, Paul Valéry, Ezra Pound and Stéphane Mallarmé. But whoever said it, it’s a thought-provoking idea that rings true for many poets.

Posted by author: Vicky MacKenzie
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3 thoughts on “Redrafting Part 2: Redrafting a Poem

  • Good points, Vicky, for all poetry writers. I always redraft myself and advise students to do the same by looking at four major areas (and you can use this for prose as well)
    1.Structure – so this will help writers to look at free verse or strict form, to think about line endings and overall shape and sound.
    2. Voice: this is about the narrative stance and point of view.
    3. Observed or imagined detail: this helps you to show what’s happening rather than telling and explaining and to use specific details not generalisations and abstract words.
    4. Language and vocabulary: this helps you to think about how you can use language effectively, reducing the number of adjectives and adverbs, because English works best through its nouns and verbs which create the strongest images.

  • I’ve just begun writing the odd haiku, while one of my students is writing a narrative poem, and I think your advice will benefit poets with works long and short alike.

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