What do Poetry Editors do?



What DO they do?  I’m not always sure of the answer, but I know what I do. It’s a place to start. Oh but — health warning: this blog entry is quite boring.

It’s easier by far to talk about other kinds of editing. When you edit prose, you check for consistency of house style, regularise spelling and punctuation, remove stray spaces, sort out grammatical glitsches. It all makes complete sense.

But you can’t do that in a poem, or not necessarily. Many poets don’t have systematic punctuation. Some use punctuation in one poem but not the text. Or minimal punctuation in one, and then masses of dashes in another.

Quite often poets even withhold the full stop at the end of a poem, on purpose. They stick gaps between words. They throw ellipses all over the place ….

Frankly, poets are an editing nightmare!

So (when occupying the editor’s role) you do your best. You work out what seems to be the system in any one poem or set of poems and you make suggestions for change, if appropriate.

You work out whether anomalies are deliberate or accidental.

You work out whether ambiguities are intended or not.

I did a workshop recently which included ‘editing’ as its topic, so I drew up two lists for the participants.

List one is the ordinary things editors (and typesetters) check mostly without even thinking.

List two is the point where the editor (or it could be a critical and respectful friend) gets more challenging.

All these editors, when it comes to your own work, are you.

List A (simple):

Make all the dashes the same size (m dashes): many people are confused about this.

Reduce two spaces after full stops (or colons) to a single space.

Make sure ellipses have the correct number of dots.

Consider direct speech, how it is presented (speech marks or italics), whether it’s consistent, and whether it works.

Identify punctuation system (if there is one) and make it consistent if possible.

If poet uses gaps inside the lines work out what system/consistency is (if any) i.e. how many space-bar spaces makes up a gap.­­

Consider whether line length can be accommodated without doglegs or, if a dog has to break a leg, where it should do it.

Consider whether poem will fit inside an A5 page, or any page, advantageously.

Check for errors in capitalisation e.g. seasons.

Check spelling (US or English, practice or practise).

Check apostrophes.

Check for ‘dumb’ quote-marks and make them all curly.

Check references for accuracy – dates, places, people etc.

Simplify punctuation if it is over-complicated (eg unnecessary number of semi-colons and colons).

Italicise Latin/foreign words or botanical references.

Make heading styles consistent.

List B

Check for repetitions – if intended, do they work? If unintended, need to think again e.g. too many uses of ‘then’ or ‘as’.

If references are difficult, consider whether poem might need note or epigraph.

Consider effectiveness of line breaks. Do any of them seem to throw up barriers, or are any too obviously ‘clever’ e.g. fall over / a cliff; go round / the bend.

If the poem is ‘after’ somebody, decide what ‘after’ means in this case. May need to track down the source and see what is owed.

Consider title. What does it contribute? Does it replay a key phrase from later in the poem and thus steal some thunder? If so, suggest change.

Consider the form: does it work for the content? Would change of stanza groups or lineation be worth considering?

Consider shapes: is the poet doing much the same thing in several poems: e.g. generally long and thin, generally couplets, generally even-sized chunks. And if so, does this have a cumulatively dull effect?

Individual words: do any of them feel too ‘easy’ or even risk cliché?

Are there too many adjectives?

Point of view: ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘one’, ‘we’, ‘she’: is it mixed? Is it right?

Metaphor: does it work? If mixed, does the mix work?

If the first four lines are a little flat, decide at what point reader attention is captured. If parts seem to be unduly hard to follow (or a complete mystery), try to work out whether this is intentional and necessary, or whether simplification would be a good idea.

Sometimes there’s an obvious point where the energy kicks in, and that’s not always the first line. What happens if we start with stanza 2?

And that’s about it. I promise to be more entertaining next time and not so up my own ellipsis.

7 thoughts on “What do Poetry Editors do?”

  1. Sometimes it’s good to be boring. I’m saying this for the readers who might have been bored, but actually, I wasn’t bored. Certainly not with the ellipses. I learned that you can have four dots. Even though I’ll try to avoid the necessity, that was interesting!

  2. Not boring! A really helpful breakdown, the A/B lists. There seems to be some dispute over em vs en dashes. My editor pointblank insisted on en dashes, saying ems are American. I did a quick poll of editors at the Poetry Book Fair and they all except one agreed with her rule. 🙁

  3. I’m in the midst of an editing job (someone else’s poems, not mine.) I did not find your post boring in the least! There’s a lot to learn about editing, and the more the poet knows about it the easier the editor’s job is going to be. In fact List B would be useful at any poetry workshop. So thank you for taking the trouble to share your lists.

  4. Jinny, your ed. may use n dashes as house style. Ems, however, are not American. I use them in all my publications.

  5. A really good post, and far from boring — helpful for all of us who write, and who comment on others’ work. But a prolonged discussion of dash-lengths (should I have used one there – or was that just a hyphen? And should a hyphen be shorter than a dash? Bugger! I’ve gone and put double spaces in…) that might be pushing it. On [single space] the other hand, it might be quite entertaining!

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