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The challenges of editing a poetry book


Poetry and artwork pieces on a desk with a pen and scissors

I never thought that editing poetry would be such a big task. A few weeks ago, I shared some secrets about writing a poetry book I've learned so far in my journey. One of the most surprising hurdles I found was editing my poetry.


Poems are short, nothing like a novel. There are no characters to flesh out or plots to fill. You aren't building new worlds so much as enhancing the current one. How can editing poems be so hard, then? You'd be surprised.


Here are a few of the challenges to writing a poetry book I've experienced so far and how I'm overcoming them. Grab your favorite cup and settle in.


Emotional overload

I was only mildly prepared for the emotional toll editing my poetry would take. One of the most emotional pieces I've written to date was published in The History of Us anthology by Moms Who Write. It was a narrative called The Scent, a look back at my toxic experience with a coach in my gymnastics days. But I didn't have to reread it 100 times. I wrote it, read it quickly, and then passed it along.


For my own book, I knew I had to reread my pieces more than once. However, this was one of the first times in my life I hadn't read my poetry and then thrown it in the trash. Not because I thought it was bad but because I was scared of the rawness of my mind.


Yes, poetry tends to be shorter than novels and other larger pieces of writing. But the emotion behind these pieces is different. Poems are written to express emotions in a metaphoric or cryptic way. They are seeping with memories and pain and trauma and triumph. It's heavy and hard. You won't always be in the right place to do it. That's okay.


Tip: Take your time and don't push it

Edit what you can when you can. Try not to edit super emotional pieces before bed or an important event. Treat yourself to your favorite drink and treat, curl up in a comfy spot, light some of your favorite candles, and breathe. I've even found meditation before editing to be super beneficial.


Whatever you need to do to calm and focus your space, do it. It helps. When you need a break, stop. There is no shame in that.


Emotional Disconnection

Now let's flip to the other end. There are some poems in my book that are so hard to read that I can only work on them a bit here and there. However, there are other poems in my collection that were written in such an altertered state of mind, I can't tap into the emotion to understand or edit. Who wrote this?


One poem, for instance, sounded really good to me at first. But after reading it a few times I realized it made no sense to me anymore. It was abstract and artistic, beautifully confusing, yet I really didn't know what I was referencing. It was a well-written question mark.


Tip: Scrap what doesn't fit

Sometimes, poetry is simply a way of expressing the darkest, most confusing parts of yourself, only for your eyes. Not every poem is going to be worth sharing. Some poems are just there to be springboards into other pieces.


I ended up removing said poem from my collection because I couldn't stand behind it. I am going to save it, though. Maybe it will inspire something new!


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Picking a theme

Part of editing a poetry book involves picking which pieces to include. When I first started, I was excited because I had a ton of poems ready to shine. But when I started to narrow down the pieces, I got stuck. I had no idea what theme I wanted for my book. I almost scraped my book worrying about it.


Some poets start a poetry book with a theme in mind. They think of a common message and then write poetry to fit. I'm not that organized. I just write poetry when it comes. Sporadic and chaotic and charged with whatever mood strikes me that day.


Tip: Write your preface first

This tip was given to me by my good writing friend Allie Gravitt, one of my favorite indie poets. I was struggling with what theme to pick, overthinking everything. During a random powow with my other Moms Who Write friends, Allie said "Shell, just write your preface. You'll get your theme."


The idea here is that once you start writing about what you want to say to your readers with your poetry, a theme arises. The poems that fit that theme stand out and you get a better idea of what direction to go in. It worked.


Section sorting

Once I had a theme, I felt a little better about my book. Then came sectioning my poems. Now, sectioning is not something that you have to do. Poetry books are artistic expressions and can be formatted however you want.


In my case, part of my theme involves three phases connected to PMDD as a mother. Sectioning has been important in my editing process and in the way I present my experience.


That being said. I can't tell you how hard it's been to decide which poems go in which sections. Should this one go in front? The back? Should it start the next section or crescendo into the final poem? Should it be the introduction? Sigh.


Tip: Ask a writing friend

Do your best to place every poem where you think they will have the most impact. Read, reread, reread. Once you think you've done all you can, ask a writing friend for their opinion. Chances are, they will develop their own expectations of your book along the way and be able to tell you which pieces have the biggest impact for them.


Need friends? If you're a mom writer, pop over to Moms Who Write on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok for some support!


Bad handwriting

Okay, this one may just be me. But there are some poems that I scribbled so fast or furiously that I simply cannot read parts of them. I love the legible parts. They are exactly what I am looking for in this collection. However, a few words (or even lines) here and there make no sense. It drives me crazy.


Tip: Type your poetry drafts

This is one of the reasons I've written so much of my poetry on my Freewrite Traveler. This device is made for writing and writing only.


I have a folder for poetry and I keep it by my bed where I usually escape to when inspiration strikes at home. Of course, I still have typos that make me wonder what the heck I was talking about, but they are so much easy to decipher than chicken scratch.


Look out for more poetry book updates!

The more I do these poetry book updates, the further I get to self-publishing. It's slow, but I'm a mom who writes, so there are 100 other things I'm usually doing instead of working on my book.


Stay tuned for more updates! Later dreamers,

Shell signature






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The Writer

Welcome! I'm a poet, author, mother, and dreamer of creative works, sharing my writing journey for all to see. My work is raw, honest, and not always pretty. I cover the darker elements of motherhood and being a woman, finding beauty in the shadows despite the smoke screens we like to build to shield them. 
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