Editing Poetry vs. Editing Prose

May 2, 2022

Classic books liked up beside each other in two rows, partly in shadow. Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com.

Hey folks! Happy May 🙂

I’ve touched on this already, but it’s still something that’s fascinating to me and that I’m constantly thinking about.

Editing poetry and editing prose are two different things.

Well, not entirely.

But they’re different enough for me to notice.

I’m going to look at it from a more personal and subjective angle by looking at my experience self-editing my novel and working on clients’ poetry collections, since these are what have taken up the majority of my editing time.

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The questions

What I ask myself while I’m editing fiction isn’t quite the same as what I ask when editing poetry.

With my finished (or, as-finished-as-possible-for-now) project, I overwrote. I write novels for a reason – my thoughts are often too long to write short form! A couple months ago, I edited my book for the tenth or so time and tried to cut words. (I succeeded!) In moments like that (and other stages, even early on), I ask questions like:

  • is this phrase too long?
  • can this description be condensed?
  • didn’t she say that on the other page in slightly different words???
  • does this add to the story?

With poetry collections, I do ask similar questions. I check if lines are too long, if there’s too much repetition, etc. But I’m also looking at:

  • does this short line convey everything it should?
  • does the metaphor come across clearly enough for people to grasp? (This can also come up in fiction, of course. It’s just approached a little differently.)
  • does the poem actually fit with the others in the collection?
  • is this poem too similar to the one before it?

The proofreading

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Here, it largely comes down to objective vs subjective, and differences often lie with specific grammar rules and punctuation. For example, when it comes to fiction, if I see that I missed a comma in a sentence that traditionally has a comma, I’m adding one in. If I see that a poet missed a comma in a sentence that traditionally has a comma, I ask if they meant to exclude it for theme/imagery/aesthetic purposes. It’s little nuances like that that I have to pay attention to.

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The overarching elements

My book has a concrete plot that has to make sense the entire way through, to one extent or another. This might be the biggest thing that I have to watch out for, as far as big things go. Well, that and logical character development and arcs. But in any case, there are a lot of linear elements that are being propelled forward that I need to keep on track.

Sometimes this happens in poetry. With WANDERER by Court Young, the poems follow a linear movement from relationship to relationship and the consequences of said relationships. I helped Court keep those moving forward.

But that linear element isn’t always present in collections. In others I’ve worked on, they aren’t moving forward. But what most collections do have is a central theme – whether that be exploring hard emotions, examining grief through the lens of travel, the sentiments nature inspires, etc. Of course, some novels have a theme, too. Many authors set out to examine a particular issue, convey a certain idea or message.

Not me. Mine has a theme and a message, but I didn’t set out to do that. It just sort of happened through the natural development of the plot. So I’m not editing for that while I work, but I am editing for theme while I edit my clients’ stuff, if the collection calls for it. If a poem doesn’t fit what they’re trying to do, I suggest cutting it, or making adjustments until it fits.

The challenges

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Ok, so what do I find challenging with both?

Like I said, I tend to overwrite. So when editing my book, it was a challenge to know what to cut. It got to the point where I felt like I’d be sacrificing my plot if I cut much more, so it became a hunt to track down sentences and phrases and paragraphs that didn’t have to do with moving the plot or characterization forward.

I’ve also found bulking up a challenge! There was a moment at the start of the book that was basically a throw-away sentence that I realized needed expanding upon. I was stuck for months on how to do that. Then I decided to write journal entries from my characters’ perspectives on what happened during those days, and voila. Something clicked, and I wrote it.

And then had to edit it down again, but it is what it is.

With poetry, it’s the fine line of metaphor and reality sometimes. How can we keep this metaphor but make sure it won’t be lost on readers? How can we make it more evident without ruining it?

Other times it’s adjusting words so they still fit with the tone and the style. For instance, one client liked alliteration, but some words needed to be adjusted so the poem was punchier. I had to work within her preferred style and use many a thesaurus to figure that one out.

White person with long hair in a white dress holding their arms open in front of a mountainous, green canyon. Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com.

The best of both

For fiction, I like making the story sharper, the characters stronger, and the emotions more palpable. It’s like chipping away at a stone until you uncover a sculpture.

For poetry, I like helping find stronger ways of writing poems, the back and forth of coming up with cool words or line breaks, figuring out metaphors and the messages being crafting, puzzling out how to organize the poems to make a coherent and strong collection.

Neat how some of the things I like most rely on the things I find most challenging, don’t you think?

In both cases, it really is the whole process of coming up with something stronger, walking away with something better than it was when the task started. With my writing, I get to go, “I did that?? That was my brain??” It’s a phenomenal feeling. With my clients, for both poetry and fiction, I get to go, “look at that! That’s your project! I’m so happy you’re happy with it!” Which is yet again a phenomenal feeling.

However different they may be overall, that overlapping feeling really is the best thing.

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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