I have a confession: I am a lazy poet.
I’ve been writing poetry for many years, taking class after class, workshop after workshop. Sometimes all that learning shows up in my poems, but recently I’ve become lazy. I blurt something onto the page, make a few changes, and call it done. My poems have become flabby.
With the help of a small, ad hoc poetry critique group, I have been rediscovering revision.
Before we go on, let’s clarify where revision fits into the writing process.
The Writing Process
Regardless of what you write (poem, article, blog post, book), writing follows a general flow:
- Ideation – In some way you begin the process of developing your piece of writing. An idea pops into your head and you’re off. Maybe you keep a list of potential topics to reference when nothing is popping. You might like to mind map, outline, or journal. Regardless, you develop an intent for your piece, the thing you are trying to accomplish.
- Draft – For some of us, getting the first draft on the page is the hardest. When your intent for the piece is clear, your first draft may come quickly. If your intent is less clear, your first draft may be what I call a “discovery draft”; you write it to figure out what you really want to say.
- Revision – Once a first draft exists, you can assess it for how well it achieves your intent. You may need to revise for clarity or effectiveness. Or, you may realize your intent changed as you wrote your discovery draft; you may need to re-vision the entire piece. Revision (re-vision) requires viewing your work with fresh eyes to see needed strategic or structural changes.
- Edit – When your piece is solidly on track, editing can begin—word choice, paragraph breaks, linguistic flourishes, and of course grammar, punctuation, and other “rules.”
- Proofread – Proofreading entails cleaning up the small mistakes—fixing periods, semicolons, misspellings, and so on.
You may write clean, straightforward pieces that come out nearly complete with revision a quick checkmark on the way to brief editing and proofreading. Other pieces—short or long—may entail multiple iterations of revision before editing.
What many of us [lazy!] writers tend to do is come up with an initial draft and jump right to editing or even proofreading. We completely miss or ignore the concept of checking our intent and revising (re-visioning) if we are not achieving our goal.
Three Tips to Freshen Up for Revision
But here’s the trick: you have to come to revision/re-visioning with an objective perspective. Three ways I’ve found to freshen my eyes include:
- Taking time away
- Getting outside feedback
- Critiquing others’ work
Take Time Away
In a way, you need to forget what you’ve written in order to see it objectively. Time away from looking at a piece can offer the needed distance.
How much time is needed to see something fresh? While there is a general correlation to the length of the piece (the longer the piece, the more time away), there’s also a relationship to the significance of the piece and your skill at putting on objective-reader “glasses.”
For blog posts and short articles I might step away overnight and come back fresh, or I might simply go have a cup of coffee and then return to my desk. For books, you may need several weeks’ space. Poems are notorious for taking more time than you would expect; it may take years to find the right structure or metaphor or word. The poems I’ve been revising recently are several years old; on the other hand, I have poems that have come out almost whole.
Make time away from your writing a regular practice and you’ll soon learn what works for you.
Get External Feedback
Even with time away from our work, we can still get mired in what we already know. We forget the reader cannot divine our thoughts.
Trusted, knowledgeable critics can help us regain objectivity and understand where readers might get confused. They can point out unclear narrative, stale language, ineffective use of rhyme, or the possibility of greater impact through some small (or large) change.
Note that I said “trusted, knowledgeable critics.” When you are revising, ask for feedback from people who understand your topic and/or genre of writing. This is not the time for “Oh, that’s nice” from family and friends.
Also recognize that feedback from one person may be helpful, but multiple perspectives can be more useful. When I hear one person say my poem is too wordy, I might ignore it as a matter of taste. When my entire critique group nods along, I pay attention. Their fresh eyes see things I don’t.
Critique Others’ Work
It is ever so much simpler to see flaws and potentialities in other people’s work than it is in our own.
In my poetry group I often suggest other writers push all the lines to the left and remove the stanza breaks so they can see the poem fresh. Then it becomes easier to eliminate unnecessary words and start assessing line breaks. And frequently that is the very process I need to follow myself!
With practice critiquing others, you learn to critique yourself. And you realize sometimes you need to take your own advice.
Of course, having fresh eyes is not all that’s required to revise. It takes the willingness to work. Luckily you don’t have to rely only on internal motivation; the energy created through the process of getting and giving feedback also can stir excitement to improve.
So I am getting off my lazy poetry butt to build some poetry revising muscle.
My words are fitting better already.