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Strategies for Revising Poems

Updated: Sep 7, 2019

When I taught Poetry Writing I, I would ask students to revise one of their poems 15 times, just as an exercise in possibilities. When I first started teaching, I'd make a few vague suggestions about revision strategies before setting them loose. Later, I realized that the students needed MUCH more guidance. Thus, this list.

These days, I think the distinction between composition and revision is a false one. All revision is composition.


· Try writing past the current end of the poem.

· Try cutting the current end. Often the last several lines are explanation or summary.

· Try cutting the current end AND writing past it.

· Try writing lines before the current beginning.

· Or try cutting the opening lines and starting the poem later—often the beginning lines are prologue. (Sometimes dates/seasons and setting can be placed in the title or just below the title in italics: “—Window Rock, 1995”)

· Go through the poem and find the strong lines—those that sound good and/or are built around strong, precise images.

· Keep only the strong lines, build the poem around them.

· Keep the strong lines and revise/refine the other lines until they are of equal quality.

· Triple-space the poem and expand it by writing a line between each existing line. (Keep only the lines useful to the strategy of the poem).

· Allow sound to assist the composition. If there are interesting sounds, try repeating them in current or succeeding lines.

· Try different tenses.

· Try different points of view. (Turn “I” into “you,” for example.)

· Make your imagery more specific by thinking of one particular time or moment.

· Is the poem lyric, meditative, or narrative? Might the territory be better covered by a different mode?


· Sharpen existing images (don’t just add adjectives or adverbs; re-envision the images). Remember: nouns and verbs are the keys to succinct, precise, and evocative writing.

· Replace abstract statements with images.

· Supplement abstract statements with images.

· Experiment with line breaks! If long lines are broken at the phrase, try short lines broken against the phrase (and vice versa).

· Listen to each line’s rhythm—can you tighten the rhythm or pace? (try eliminating unaccented/unstressed syllables.)

· Have you found the correct rhythm for the subject?

· Listen to the sounds each line makes—refine them according to your ear.

· Refine the relationship of sound to sense.

· Does the poem use stanza breaks effectively?

· What unifies the poem? Subject? Theme? Language? Rhythm? Image? Review the poem to make sure the unifying thread is felt, so that there is a sense of cohesion.

· Does the poem do what you set out to do? Or does it do something more interesting? Is there a possibility for it do something more interesting—a place where it can be expanded, branch out or take a turn?

· Have you worked TOO consciously? Or have you allowed the language and accident to move the composition forward?

· Does the ending have the “feel” of an ending? Does the poem need that “feel’? That is, how important is closure to this particular experience? [the poet does not always have to provide answers or neat endings; exploration or simply experiencing a moment can be just as rewarding]

· Can the poem be condensed further?

· Have you committed sentimentality (asking the reader to respond without providing the ground for the response)? If so, move towards concrete experience to eliminate it.

· Does the poem cover some emotional ground? If not, move the poem toward important experience.

· Have you considered the imperative mode? (e.g. commands such as “Open your hand… Hold a lock of hair…. Speak softly” etc.)

· Have you damaged the poem by “working it too hard,” by thinking too consciously about its theme or subject? Loosen your hold, allow imagination and surprise to enter the lines.


· Can you remove articles (a, an, the)? But be careful not to turn the poem into a telegram.

· Can you eliminate conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor, etc.), using commas instead?

· Can you find more active verbs?

· Can you cut adjectives, find more precise nouns?

· Can you cut adverbs, find more precise verbs?

· Have you used clichés?

· Have you found the best title? (Make a list—a long one—of potential titles. Often the best titles are specific and concrete; think of painter’s titles: “At Naskeag Point, 1995” is (usually) much better than, “The Shoreline,” though Mark Strand’s early surrealist works featured vague, abstract titles to good effect.)

· Does the poem have a strong opening line?

· Have you explored different visual possibilities for the poem—spacing on the page, font, etc.

· Have you employed metaphor, simile? (Some poets need to be reminded, others do this naturally. Not all poets or poems need indulge.)

· Have you employed punctuation consistently and effectively? (Not necessarily “correctly.”)

· Have you checked for grammatical and mechanical errors?

· Have you run “spell check”?

· Are all grammatical exceptions deliberate, justifiable and necessary?


Craft is really only a series of pressures put upon the poem. Different poems respond different ways to those pressures. To a certain extent, poems discover/invent their own rules and procedures. One can find great poems that arise counter to all the suggestions and injunctions included above.

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