50 Tips for Revising Your Poems

                                                            Barbara Daniels


1.      Base your poems on images (which can be seen, touched, tasted, heard or smelled), not abstractions (general ideas such as honesty and truth). Think in images.

2.      Write with vivid, specific nouns and strong verbs.

3.      Try cutting –ing endings to see if that makes your verbs stronger.

4.      Know what your title is doing for your poem. 

5.      If you can’t find a title, look five lines up from the end of the poem.

6.      Start or end lines strongly or do both.

7.      Use line breaks to surprise the reader or control the flow of your poem.

8.      Don’t make every line a sentence. 

9.      Keep tense and person consistent unless you gain something by switching.

10.  Write for this century, avoiding archaic (outdated) words and unnatural word order.

11.  Read the poem out loud; listen for rhythmic patterns you should emphasize or de-emphasize; use rhythm to communicate meaning.  Record yourself reading.

12.  Say something new or at least say something in a new way, avoiding clichéd thinking or wording.  Cut or replace most familiar language.  Observe your world. To say something new, you have to see something new.

13.   Invent situations and details when necessary; don’t assume that what happened and was significant to you is automatically significant to readers.

14.  Avoid sing-song rhyme for its own sake; don’t say what you don’t mean just for the sake of rhyme. All poems rhyme; listen to the music in your poem, the repeated sounds that aren’t at the ends of lines.  Are repeated sounds adding to the music of your poem or detracting from it?

15.  Identify the method or structure of your poem.  Is it narrative or lyric?

16.  Try to make the opening and closing the strongest parts.  Cut the beginning of the poem to where it really begins.  Generally avoid closing with a moral or generalization, especially if it’s already familiar to people.

17.  Consider the poem on the page.  Should it have regular stanzas with the same number of lines in each one or irregular stanzas or no stanzas at all? 

18.  Would dropped lines or open form with scattered lineation work better with the images and rhythms of your poem?

19.  Identify the poem’s literal situation.  Would anything be gained by making it clearer to the reader, perhaps through a title change, epigraph, or dedication?

20.  If the poem is mysterious, consider a straightforward title; it the poem is straightforward, consider a title that doesn’t give too much away.

21.  Don’t stick too closely to a moral or general purpose that’s rigid or schematic.  Follow the poem where it wants to go; it usually knows more than you do.

22.  Take notes when lines or phrases come to you.  Look for connections between them.  Should they be added to the poem you’re working on to make it richer and less predictable?

23.  Find poets you love and read them to identify strategies you can borrow.

24.  Read poets you dislike to see what to avoid or adapt in your own work.

25.  Look at the self you present in your poem; is there a way to be less self congratulatory, to make yourself complicit, involved in a questionable act?

26.   Try revising the poem in a different person (she instead of I, for example) or tense (the past tense instead of the present).

27.  Be willing to kill your darlings.  What do you like best about the poem?  Is there a chance it detracts from the rest of the poem by calling attention to itself?  Examples might be unusual or poetic words or changes in ordinary word order.

28.  Is the poem too compressed?  Should words and lines be cut or added?

29.  Live with the poem.  Print it.  Put it by your computer or wherever you work so that you can continue to consider word choices and line breaks.

30.  You need to have a crush on a poem in order to work on it, but it helps to recognize that crushes may not last.  After awhile, you’ll have a different outlook on your poem and may want to recast it in other terms, cut it, rearrange it, or add to it.

31.  Write enough to satisfy the reader.  Don’t stop short, but don’t belabor your ideas either.

32.  Something should be at stake in the poem.  Something should matter.

33.  Is there a personal story you’ve told a half dozen times or more?  That belongs in a poem or story. 

34.  Trust your own experiences;  they make the most compelling writing.

35.  Keep writing.  It’s OK to write over and over about your obsessive material, but it’s also useful to try to move on and then return to your obsessions to see how your new work has changed what you can do with your obsessive subjects.

36.  Let yourself write junk.  Lower your standards.  Then look through the junk to see if there are lines, phrases, or words worth saving.  If not, just move on.  Any writing you do feeds into future writing.

37.  Establish rules for your poems, such as writing 9 syllables per line, using three stresses (emphasized syllables) per line, or six random words (such as raspberry, Utah, lips, aluminum, thimble, and oak).

38.  Try new forms, perhaps villanelles or sonnets.

39.  Don’t choose language and details just to impress yourself or others.

40.  Give readers rewards early and often.  Know what kinds of rewards your poems offer.

41.  Think associatively—what’s it like?  Move from one association to another as a dream does.

42.  Metaphors are stronger than similes, but strength isn’t always what you want.

43.  If you feel you’re making points too strongly, recast some of them as questions.  Don’t overstate.  You’re not the Great Teacher or Great Authority, just another person who might be worth listening to.

44.  Look for a core of emotion in every poem.  What feelings are in your poem?  How can you make them clearer and stronger? Let anger speak.

45.  Cut transitions such as “then,” “next,” “however,” “but” and “and.”  They don’t all have to go, but poems usually jump from image to image rather than move smoothly and logically.

46.  Hate the inexact. Write for the ear and the eye, the mind and the heart.

47.  When a word or line is repeated, be sure its meaning deepens.

48.  Trust accidents. How can you use them to make a poem go in a surprising direction?

49.  Embody your ideas; add a couple of body parts.

50.  Welcome ambiguity.  Move through it to truth.  Originality comes from writing honestly.