50 ways to improve your poems

The first version of your poem is a first draft.  It’s exciting to have written it – but how do you make it the best it can be?  How can you improve your chances of getting it published and read by others?    I’ve pulled together some great advice from poetry professionals.

Simon Armitage – much-published UK leading poet (see previous blog posts on career tips here and videopoem here) has drawn together a testing kit for poetry at the Guardian newspaper: “How to write Poetry, Checklist”

Grace Wells – editor of American and Irish poetry magazines and Literary Festival organiser – has written a very down-to-earth list of 11 editing points at Advice on Editing Poetry

Magma Poetry is a well-known and well-regarded UK poetry magazine, inundated by manuscripts from hopeful poets – but they’ve got their head above tidal waves of submissions long enough to write: “25 rules for editing poems”

Robert Lee Brewer over at Writers Digest has scribed, revised and polished:

“5 ways to revise poetry”


Vital Beginning Advice

Whatever you do, begin by saving your first draft of the poem.  (Whether it’s handwritten in blotchy cheap biro on the back of an envelope or a pristine typed document on your home computer.)

That way, if you are into your nth variation and realise with a sinking heart that the poem/patient on the operating table is dead – you can go back to the original version which, although imperfect, at least has life and breath.

To really keep your options open, each time you begin to revise the poem, save it as a separately numbered file e.g.  Terrific1, Terrific2 and, to avoid confusion, stash all previous editions in a file called “archived” so only the most recent/best version is uppermost.  But the rest can all be accessed easily by opening the archived file.

Frequently mentioned Advice:

These kept cropping up in the various advice lists, so are well-worth bearing in mind:

*keep preparing to write better by reading more good published poetry (get a voluminous anthology like the Norton’s Anthology of Poetry)

*find the line or phrase in your poem which is the heart of it and cut out anything which doesn’t fit in with that.  (Quick useful tip from me: treat a poem like a college essay, write its core in CAPITALS at the top of the page and make sure that everything written underneath refers back to what’s in that title).

* look at every noun, verb, adjective, adverb and either cut it out as redundant or find the best alternative (use a Thesaurus)

* know what the poem is saying – its form should support that

*live with it.  If you set the first draft aside for a while, come back to it with a sharpened editorial pen and keep revisiting

*make sure the last word at the end of each line is an important one, because line breaks automatically emphasize that word to the reader

*read the poem aloud to make sure it sounds good

*as well as saying a clear message, the poem should have another message or image within it, so it repays reading

*the poem should give the reader an experience as they read

*cut away all unnecessary words, beginning with the first line – unless something said is progressing the poem’s communication, it’s a distracting bore


All the above advice summarised into 2 words:

Be interesting


The Big Question

Here is a simple question I’ve drawn up which will immediately tell you how good the poem is: are you willing to spend time learning it off by heart?

If you think “no” – then you really know in your heart of hearts that it’s not good enough or finished, yet.  Or, frankly, it’s not exciting enough.







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