revision techniques

2 posts

Work in Progress — A Better Way


We all know the joke by now–the sign on the road reading MEN WORKING. It’s how we learned the word “oxymoron” as the car sped past workers in hardhats leaning on shovels, sipping Dunkin Donuts coffees, chatting each other up.

“Work in Progress” is another matter, one with greater meaning and impact. As my third poetry manuscript grows (though not in Brooklyn), I’ve changed my approach. With the first two books, The Indifferent World and Lost Sherpa of Happiness, I created a folder on my computer and then created separate docs for each poem within them.

With this one, I smartened up. The folder is called “Work in Progress,” and it is a single doc containing ALL the poems as I go along. I keep them in the order I wrote them, leaving any new arrangements for the day when I’ve mustered 45 or more–about the number you need to call it a poetry collection as opposed to its little brother, the chapbook.

The advantage to this approach has proven to be huge. Why? Often I’m not in the mood to work on my most recent poem because it is frustrating me. In the past, I would seldom click other docs to look at other poems in the collection. Instead, I would avoid the frustration of the recalcitrant new poem by reading a book or, worse, the online news.

Now? I open up the “WIP” doc and am faced with the first two poems I wrote every time. “Oh, yeah,” I feel like saying. “You guys!” I scroll down and see the whole parade of so-called “finished” poems.

Revising is my middle name (thanks, Mom). It is also the lifeblood of poetry writing. Using this system, I find myself tinkering, changing, and–blessed be!–deleting entire lines and stanzas of poems I had considered “done.”

A couple of times, I’ve taken on the revision task of working on each poem in order until I worked my way back to the present poem. More often, as a warm-up, I find myself reading random poems in the “Work in Progress.”

Interestingly, I often change a word in a poem one day and then change it back the next. Must be the different light on Tuesday vs. Wednesday, but over time and with enough looks, I settle on a word I like better, even though I could go either way.

The revision practice of a “Works in Progress,” all-in-one-doc approach has also reined in my habit of sending babies to market prematurely like so many poor Oliver Twist waifs. Now when I send poems, they’re a sturdier lot, more fully grown and refined. It’s even emboldened me to submit to tougher markets, what the going-to-college kids would call “reaches.”

Though it came about by accident and through convenience, the new method has won me over. It works. It keeps the whole brood of babies in front of me. And, after a few days of revision, I’m all refreshed and ready to tackle that tough poem I’ve been ducking–the one that used to send me to all the bad news on the virtual front pages.





Yesterday the topic of revision came up. I resisted the urge to revise that post and instead decided to add a few random addenda here.

  • Ridiculous? Maybe. But often I go back and forth, day by day, on the question of definite vs. indefinite article. “The” becomes “a” becomes “the” becomes “a.”
  • Better yet, I sometimes wonder why I even need articles at all. I delete them altogether. Only to see them rise again, gaudy as Lazarus.
  • Revision time is often consumed with questions regarding stanzas. One day a poem looks good as a single block. The next, it struts its stuff in couplets. Then, like punch lines in jokes, it’s tercets. The lovely quatrain, maybe?
  • Of course, stanzas don’t always cooperate. Some of them are stubborn, refusing to obey orders and “fall in.” Then the revisionist faces the decision on whether to allow a single line at the end or not. Too show-offy? Cheap? Unjustified?
  • Or maybe we just shorten or lengthen lines to make them fit a stanza pattern?
  • Adjectives. Adverbs. Guilty until proven innocent, yes, but oh, how the bleeding-heart reviser wants to find them innocent. I steel myself. Fewer and fewer pass the gate.
  • Word-search function. It’s a great way to hound-dog words that keep popping up in poems like relatives fond of dropping in for dinner or borrowing money.
  • Aloud. Ultimately, all revisions must come before the Supreme Court: my ears.
  • Unusual or unexpected word pairings. Strange but compelling bedfellows. They’re auditioning all the time in the revision process. When they work, they can steal the show.
  • Simile or metaphor? It’s like oil and vinegar for the salad: never 50/50. Metaphors should be predominant, as the word “like” can attract too much attention, especially in close proximity.
  • “No one is indispensable,” we’re often told at work. The same is true of words. How many can safely go? Cutting to the bone is not just the province of butchers and surgeons.
  • Little kids play dress-up by trying on Mom and Dad’s clothes and shoes. Poets do the same by walking into the closet where imagery is kept. Often, the four neglected senses (sound, smell, touch, taste) can take a good poem and make it that much better.
  • All poetic devices are like salt: they add flavor, but too much of any one ruins the dish.
  • What? Your poem has been accepted by a journal? Here come the stages: Elation, followed by, “Could I have marketed this work to a better-known magazine, now that it’s been snapped up by this one?” followed by the arrival of the journal in the mail and a fear of even looking at it because a.) It might suddenly look different — like a changeling has been inserted as a practical joke — and elicit a feeling of embarrassment, b.) there might be maddening errors by the printer, or c.) it might just trigger an urge to… REVISE. Just a little more, is all. Pretty please?
  • Finally, you know you’re a revisionary on a par with Catherine of Avila when you read John Keats, Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop and feel an urge to revise their poems. It occurs to you, for the first time, that there might be a thin line between revision prowess and obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Poetry proposition: In no other genre does revision play a greater role.
  • And finally, my favorite “click” on a blogging platform, a Word document, or an online comment: EDIT. Hallowed be its name.