Reader, remember? We were talking about revision (here and here — scroll down). Rather than write a poem a day for Poetry Month, I’ve decided to work on a revision a day. I’m calling it NaPoRevMo for fun.
Did I say fun? Uh, yeah, not so much. There has been mucho moaning and groaning and gnashing of teeth at my desk this week as I pick apart the weak moments of current drafts, as I try to re-see, undo, and do again. And yet, I feel a certain sense of righteousness — kind of the same feeling you have when you eat a lot of spinach or kale.
In our series on revision, it’s time to talk about the usual. This is all the revision advice you’ve heard a thousand times before. I’m covering it because, well, it’s good advice. It’s all stuff we need to think about as we polish our drafts. The key word here is polish. These tips and pointers are less about re-seeing your draft and more about making it the best it can be. It has its place in the revision process — you can implement these tips all along the way, and certainly at the end of your process — but probably none of them is going to transform your draft from one poem into another. I’m just going to hammer these out in list form. Ready? Here we go:
1. The no-brainer: check spelling, punctuation, subject/verb agreement, point of view, etc.
2. Cut any overused or cliched language unless you are using cliches for effect, which should be rare.
3. Punch up the verbs (this is my personal least-favorite revision advice, but still, it’s good advice).
4. Be specific: don’t say “bird,” say “crow.” Be concise: don’t say “cold, hard, icy rain,” say “sleet.” (Speaking of which, check out this lit mag).
5. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Hint: if you’re using an adjective, perhaps you have the wrong noun (see #4 above). If you’re using an adverb, perhaps you have the wrong verb.
6. Cut unnecessary syllables and words. Hint: fewer syllables are usually better unless you are using a many-syllabled word for effect, e.g., Poe’s “tintinnablulation.”
7. Maximize sounds. Make sure you understand the sounds you’re using, especially vowels, and what their work is in the poem.
8. If there is rhyme, make sure it’s subtle enough not to sound sing-songy and that it works for a purpose in your poem.
9. Use sensory details to bring your reader into the scene. You know: the five senses. Don’t forget smell (it seems we often forget smell in writing, no?).
10. Review linebreaks and beginnings to see what’s emphasized — make sure linebreaks are intentional and work for a purpose in your poem.
11. The title feels right, does its work, and you can say how/why.
12. Exposition is moved up into the title and/or epigraphs as much as possible.
13. The form feels right and you know why you’re choosing it. The white space does its work for the poem and you can say how/why.
14. The voice(s) of the poem is/are consistent, and if it/they change(s) you have a good reason for why.
15. Your ending works for your poem and you can say why/how.
And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for:
16. Read your draft aloud. Listen for places where you stumble, drag, get tongue-tied (O! I cringe here at all the places I’ve stumbled, dragged, been tongue-tied so far this week). These are places you need to look at.
As in revision, so, too, in life. This is all about putting your best foot forward: recycling the clothes that make you feel frumpy, replacing the jacket with frayed sleeves, getting a good haircut.
And now, what am I missing? If you have a few usual revision pointers that I’ve forgotten about here, share them in comments. Next in the series will be the useful — specific revision strategies that have been most useful to me. Until then … .