3 editing exercises for stronger poetry

28 Apr

Editing can be the hardest thing to learn and teach so I am constantly trying out need exercises. I quickly though up this one for Mouthy yesterday and it seemed to work pretty well so I thought I would share it! Sorry for any typos, haven’t got time to proof atm (ironic for an editing tasksheet I know)





Redundancy is using more words than you need to, it could be using a polysyllabic (long) word, when there is a monosyllabic (short) word that is available. It can often be saying the same thing twice e.g. ‘a sharp sword’, when all swords are sharp! Or it could be stock phrases that we use every day but have no place in concise writing i.e. the word ‘very’ or ‘really’ or ‘in my opinion’, when by speaking in first person already we know it is your opinion!


It is okay to chuck these things in a first draft to get your ideas how, but when editing a poem, these things should go. Every word needs to pull its weight in a poem, so often if the same image or idea can be portrayed without a word or phrase, cut it or replace it with something shorter by using a thesaurus or doing more research on the image you are trying to portray.


Below I have edited a poem backwards, i.e. I have added lots of redundancies to a poem. Not looking at the genuine poem underneath, try cutting out or changing this poem to remove any redundant words or phrases. 


Visible Evidence of Something that is no longer in existence.

Mother had suffered a fatal death

that early morning.


In the closet

a chalice of her last night’s putrid, yellow urine,

now a numinous, supernatural, archaic relic.


And yet, without flourishing fanfare,

what is ever to be done

but decant it out into the weeds…



Mother had died

that morning.


In the closet

a chalice of her last night’s urine,

now numinous relic.


And yet, without fanfare,

what is to be done

but empty it into the weeds…



Clichés/ Unoriginal writing

YES I go on about them all of the time!!!


Look at cliches as chewing gum 1,000 people have chewed before you, it has no flavor! These are phrases that were once tasty and original but have no lost meaning because they are used to describe everything. You deserve a new, innovative and personalised description of your feelings and experiences.


Identifying clichés needs:

a- A level of honesty with yourself, are you saying this because you have thought about it and composed something original or are you writing it because you have heard or seen it somewhere else?

b- For you to read and listen to as much poetry as you can to experience what images, words and phrases have already been used time and time again.

c- Research. If you know something felt warm, Google warmth or heat or kitchen appliances! Look at images and find colours, shapes or names you could use. I knew I wanted a flower to symbolised love in a poem, but knew a rose or a lily was unoriginal so I found the names of Orchids and also researched the way in which they are farmed, to used related imagery in my poem.

d- Visualise your feelings, imagine what shapes, sounds, movements you make when you feel the emotion or experience the situation you are describing. Zoom in or out to a tiny detail, e.g. rather than saying my heart aches I could think about what my hands do when I have experienced missing someone and come up with an image like ‘my heart is my hands wrapped around my concave waist’.


Below is a backwards edited poem, whereby I have taken a published piece and replaced innovative images with clichéd ones. Rewrite this poem with innovative images without looking at the original below:


Fairy Tales

Every time I smell your aftershave it is our past.

My father is reading me a bedtime story

in our house under the moonlight

his crisp suit over his shiny shoes,

a spray of aftershave sprayed over

and over his fatherly hands

of fatherhood that care like prayers

to god, and that is not

my bed time story. Fairy tales are my stories and Snow White

and Harry Potter. It is my father

bending over the sink, a thin bar of Lava tumbling

over and over and over slowly in his cloudy hands.


The Story of Lava

Every time I smell Lava soap it is 1948.

My father is bending over a long sink in the

pressroom of The Sioux City journal at 5 a.m.,

his grey long-underwear peeled down over his

white belly, a thin bar of Lava tumbling over

and over slowly in his ink-stained hands

of sleepy boys who fold it a certain way and

fling it on porches and steps, and that is not

my story. Lava is my story and the morning

news that Lava can’t rub off. It is my father

bending over to pick up the book, turn the

loving pages, over and over and over slowly in his fatherly hands.


Showing vs Telling


You could tell me you loved him.

Or you could show me full length plasticine animation he made you to ask you to move in with him.


You could tell me your school was rough.

Or you could show me a picture of Ahmed’s absent ear, after Ezka bit it off.


This is basically an image, metaphor or simile vs a narrative statement. There are times where things just need to be said, but on a whole, in poetry showing is stronger and furthermore an actual image is usually stronger than a metaphor and a metaphor is usually stronger than a simile (like/as).


A trick can often be spotting the abstract nouns, names of things that you cannot touch e.g. love, justice, faith, anger, politics and replacing them with an image using more concrete nouns e.g. tables, cheese burgers, Nike trainers, carpet, teeth etc.


Another trick is specificity, don’t just give me a bar but the exact drinks they had they, the smell in the air and the hair colour of the barman. Detail builds a picture, but it is also worth remembering that all the detail must have purpose, do not just describe for the sake of it but it is better to describe too much and then edit it out afterward than keep all the good stuff in your head where we can never get it out.


Below is a poem I have edited backwards, but replacing moments of showing with moments of telling. Rewrite this poem to make it show again, without reading the original poem below:



After work I walk to the bars

and sit down with a cold drink.

I lost stuff when I get home.

But my wife finds it for me.

I don’t think I drink much.

Time passed.

I still sat in a bar after work.

Whilst the world kept on turning.

I remember when I wasn’t old enough to drink.

I used to be happy

I am not now.


The Bars

After work I would go to the little bars

along the bright-green river, Chloe’s Lounge,

Cloverleaf, Barleycorn, it was like dying

to sit at 5 P. M. with a Bud so cold

it had no taste, it stung my hand,

when I returned home I missed my keys

and rang until my wife’s delicate head

emerged in her high window and retreated

like a snail tucked into a luminous shell-

I couldn’t find my wallet, or my paycheck,

though I drank nothing, only a few sips

that tasted like night air, a ginger ale,

nevertheless a dozen years passed, a century,

always I teetered on that high stool

while the Schkitz globe revolved so slowly,

disclosing Africa, Asia, Antarctica,

unfathomable oceans, radiant poles,

until I was a child, they would not serve me,

they handed me a red hissing baloon

but for spite I let it go, for the joy

of watching it climb past Newton Tool & Dye,

for fear of cherishing it, for the pang

of watching it vanish and knowing

myself both cause and consequence.



One Response to “3 editing exercises for stronger poetry”


  1. 15 points to Editing Success… | The MOUTHY Poets blog - May 12, 2013

    […] Have you used redundancies? (What are redundancies? https://mouthypoets.wordpress.com/2012/04/28/3-editing-exercises-for-stronger-poetry-2/) […]

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