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Poetry Turnoffs: Styles And Formatting That Make Editors Cringe

Photo by Laura Billings

It’s our job to stay tuned in to trends in the publishing industry, and we’ve noticed that some poetry formatting choices don’t resonate well with editors of literary journals. If you’d like to get your poems published in literary magazines, consider these tips before making your submission.

Rhyming Poetry And Contemporary Publishing
As disappointing as the news may be for some poets, very few literary journals are accepting rhyming poems or formal verse poems. From the lack of popular interest in rhyming poetry, it seems that many modern readers have come to regard rhyme as naive, outdated, and contrived. Literary editors of well-known journals are simply not banging down poets’ doors to publish rhyming poetry.

That said, some editors love and publish rhyme. Poets who excel in traditional verse may well find an outlet in literary journals; however, the writing must be exceptional in order to overcome the apparent editorial disinterest in rhyme.

Poetry Format: Double-Spaced Lines
One of the tell tale signs that a writer is new to the craft is unnecessary double-spacing of free verse or rhyming poems. Many double-spaced poems can easily become single-spaced poems without doing significant damage. The new writer may feel uncomfortable changing from double spaces to single spaces, but if you leaf through the pages of a literary magazine, you’ll find that most poems are single-spaced.

That said, some poems simply must be double-spaced. The writer selects double-spacing not just because it “looks nice” but because that format supports the meaning of the poem in some way. You can double-space your poems; just be sure you’re doing it deliberately, with sensitivity and awareness. If you can remove the double spacing without doing damage to the poem, it might be a good idea to do so. The format change will also help you keep the page count down.

Poetry Format: Centering Lines
There is a perception among some newer poets that centering the text of a poem somehow makes it look and feel more poetic. Few editors fall for that ruse, and some have been known to be dismissive of centered poems.

If your poem can be left justified without doing damage to the meaning of the poem, you may want to consider ditching the center justification if it helps your work get published in a well-known literary journal. That said, as with spacing, if there is a reason other than “it looks nice” that your poem must be centered, then by all means, stick to your guns. Hopefully, you’ll be able to connect with an editor who gets your work and will not dismiss your poem simply because of the center justification.

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The Best Length For Poems
As the page count of your poems goes up, the chances of your seeing them published go down. One-page poems have the best shot at being placed. And poems that have long lines of text may not be eligible for publication in narrow literary magazines. For more on this issue, read Why Length Matters When Submitting Your Stories And Poems For Publication.

One Final Note About Poetry Format
The above tips are based on the experiences of Writer’s Relief in helping poets publish their poems in literary magazines since 1994. However, we do not advocate writing poetry only for the market. If the muse moves you to write a certain way, you should do what makes you happy, consequences be damned. Writing poetry is a very personal matter, and the decisions you make about your poems should be made with care and authority—regardless of the market.

If you find you are relying too heavily on any of the above, we recommend familiarizing yourself with the kinds of things that editors are publishing in your favorite literary journals. Being familiar with the work of contemporary poets is important to your craft, your muse, and your career. Read more: Seven Techniques You Must Know To Make Editors Notice Your Poetry (in a good way!).

small_quillQUESTION: What is your poetry pet peeve?

31 Responses to Poetry Turnoffs: Styles And Formatting That Make Editors Cringe

  1. I completely agree with those defending “rhyming” poetry. Sure, it’s been around forever, but I think it is absolutely brilliant for an individual to be able to rhyme within a poem as long as the following elements are present: 1) There is no “forced” rhyming, and 2) Words aren’t simply made up to rhyme. I agree I think it is a true art to be able to create a rhyming poem that actually makes sense. Thank you “rhyming” defenders!

  2. People still love and buy great poetry. It’s been replaced as the dominant form of storytelling, as has the short story, by the novel and film. But the great stuff still breaks through. Sherman Alexie is a prime example, a brilliant short story writer and poet who’s sold quite well in forms that are not supposed to do well, yet the “ignorant” masses recognized it as the genuine article and bought it anyway. Wait, how did that happen? Because he’s a great story teller first and foremost. There are others, too many to list. Look how the ignorant masses eat everything Louis Erdrich and Jim Harrison write. Cormac McCarthy? Best seller. They’re true story tellers, and the so masses have recognized it. Coleman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s poems was a best seller only a few years ago. A Persian poet from the 13th century! A best seller. I get so tired of people in narrow, academic circles, so-called “writers,” disdaining the “ignorant masses,” as incapable of recognizing talent. Great stuff still breaks through, again and again. When people talk about how well literature “used to sell” compared to today, they seem to forget that for the most part they’re comparing themselves to immensely gifted writers who wound up being classics because of their universal appeal. It’s simply not true that you have to “sell out” and be a hack to sell books. I could list pages and pages of fantastic writers who’ve broken through. Poets and short story writers alike. Are they selling books like Stephen King? Of course not, but they’re also not collecting dust on a shelf at a University Press.

  3. This is the main reason poetry doesn’t sell. Nobody enjoys reading lines of written work that you have to guess at what the reader is trying to convey. Poems that are rhythmic and rhyme without being ‘forced rhmed’ Are the most difficult to write. It is a lost art. Even Rap is forced and many words are made up so they can rhyme. A good poem in my humble opinion gets more attention if it rhymes and has rhythm.

  4. I think one reason rhyming poetry doesn’t get published is because the art of rhyming is too difficult and often people ‘force rhyming’ because they are unable to write poems that make sense that actually have a rhythm and rhyme. It is a lost art. These so called poems that do not have rhythm, and do not rhyme bore the hell out of me. Anyone can write thoughts on paper and that is all a non-rhyming piece is. Show me poetry that is well written that rhymes and I’ll read the hell out of it. Many can’t write good poems as such.

  5. I’ve been writing poetry for years, and I say good poetry, because I’ve won big contests and even a thousand dollars on a poem in a national contest.

    I don’t especially like end rhyme except for children’s poetry. I know it was and still is popular especially with the last generation. To me, it feels like too-tight shoes to write within the old rhyming confines. I use internal rhyme and meter throughout a poem, however, which acts like a tiny car moving unrestricted through the poem.

    I’ve studied and written poetry for years, so my suggestion to you is to branch out and try different styles. When you do that, you’ll find what works best for you which is a most freeing thing.

  6. Many of my poems chronicle a lifelong struggle with the ups and downs of everyday life. They are direct, full of a variety of emotions, and usually, have a message or meaning of social significance that most common folk can relate to. Rather than using complex imagery with flowery words, metaphors, and similes, I try to keep it simple. Some poems have a personal meaning, others are only an idea, and some emerged from activities or challenges from a variety of writing avenues. Most of my poems rhyme because I like the challenge and they are, for me, simply more fun.

  7. I am surprised at the lack of involvement or interaction by the masses of so called poets/story tellers and their secret quest..Let me compare going to see a movie to :reading a poem ,or indeed the motivation ,curiosity,the Must see desire that instantly develops in our brain whenever the simple ingredients are strewn across our face even for one second..Sometimes it may simply be a common denominator that compels one person in believing and trusting ,Other times it is the author or actors that has already influenced us even before any knowledge of script/content/ genre. or story line.. To me,it is the familiar and comfortable feeling of being in the right place with familiar faces.The cream on the cake comes from the integrity of the author, If your own piece of work leaves you stranded,bewildered,slightly abstract,entertained,with a stomach pain, teary eyed ,and you can’t help but WANT to read it again ,or see it again, then you are, as the author,a Master of the Art. These are the people I am trying to reach,and form a lasting association with. If you are such a person,and that goes for the publishing too. I don’t want to complicate my life with any issue whatsoever, other tha concentrating at doing what I do best,,And if you are reading this,you understand ART in many ways …

  8. I love to write rhyming poetry its a shame its not wanted to me its a foundamental of poetry its the glue that helps form it and its all that my head works in when i write im terribly dissapointed to hear this

  9. The snobbery of the poet world astounds me! Quite often I read non rhyming poetry and it does nothing for me. It just reads like a long paragraph of nothing. To say rhyming poetry is passe is in a way, completely going against the grain of what poetry should be. It should have rhythm and meter, ebb and flow, which quite often non rhyming poetry does not.
    I don’t care what so called “experts” think, to me anyone can write prose but it takes a lot more skill and creativity to produce a good rhyming poem that holds meaning and tells a story.

  10. Any art form is a reflection of social interaction. In other words, as society changes, so too does art. The Artist has a huge decision to make. Create for personal enjoyment, or for public acceptance. Acceptance will gain the artist popularity and possible publication. Example:no one rushes to the theater to watch a black and white movie. The loss becomes a little known phenomenon. The more things are done for us, the less we as the audience or reader has to work to recieve the story. I refer to this as the laziness of the masses. Here is that reflection I mentioned. It is easier to drive through for cheap food, but we loose nutrition, quality, and taste.

  11. To me, rhyme is what makes poetry differ from other literary genre.
    for me, it is a must in terms of my thought anatomy being a math person.To me, structure, progression in some form of rhythm or flow,
    makes the text dance and sing. The lack of Creativity in the use of words that come together as rhyme has made us sensitive to its misuse
    appearing as a plastered form that does not allow freedom of content flow in a natural way that does not seem artificial. I will always rhyme,
    because I find
    it soothing…..
    sublime in every way. L.D. Dockery.,, “POETRHYME” Author House

  12. Growth! My daughter went back to college to further her career choices. This led to her taking a writing class. I had always felt she was a poor writer and with good reason as I proofread her papers. Sympathetically I made suggestions as to where she should make changes and improvements, being careful not to fracture her confidence by being too harsh. After a while, she didn’t come to me anymore for suggestions. She eventually showed me some of her college papers graded by her college professor. I noticed her writing abilities vastly improved and her understanding of literary studies making quantum leaps as her education proceeded. She now is able to dissect the internal wisdom of master writers and glean the author’s metaphorical expressions hidden in the syntax. She surpassed me, or should I say, she opened my eyes. Yes, most of the poetic authors of the past write in rhyme, but they do it so well. They also use expressions unfamiliar to us today and I find myself looking up the meaning of words to understand the poems. After handing my daughter a short poem I had written, yes it was rhyming, she let me down easily by explaining why it wouldn’t be taken seriously by literary agents. She said, “Dad this is a wonderful piece of work, but the people that make the judgement calls are of a select group of academia who hold to the highest standards. They conform to these strict rules and guidelines that are acceptable by their peers in the academia educated world.” This group is small when compared to the vast majority of writers in the world, but they do have a point. There must be a standard of excellence to keep poetry and other literary works relevant. I learned from her that day that I must take some classes to better my understanding of writing. Yes, it hurt a little, but I felt pride in watching the growth in my daughter. I plan on taking some classes, just to become a better writer of poetry.

  13. It’s sad that rhyming poetry isn’t welcomed. Rhyming and metered poetry that is well done is so musical. It may be partly because so much of it is unoriginal, so it’s impossible to wade through the cliched ones to find the truly good ones. However, they exist. I have been reading lots of great poems by someone who prefers to write in meter and rhyme and he said he’d given up on trying to be published. It’s really too bad b/c I think a lot of his work is worth being shared. I will write free verse, but I usually prefer to write in rhyme.

  14. I have to say I agree with Wendy. Some years ago academia decided that rhyming poetry was boring, needed to be left in the past. So publishers and scholars jumped on the band wagon. After all, no need to study the past, right? Let us free our minds from the constraints of discipline and education and, sadly, very often good taste. A shameful and unforgivable conclusion. I love contemporary and modern poems and free verse, etc. I also love classical poetry. But I do believe one should have a good basic education in classical poetry and that it should be mandatory to study poetic forms … all of them, if one wants to be a poet. One thing I will add to Wendy’s nice comment is that no one can ever convince me that there is not just as much trash in non-classical poetry as there is poorly written rhyming poetry. Poems are just words, people, and how original you are in creating your image or emotion, and your unique word choice is what will make your poem interesting, not what style you choose to use. Oddly I write poetry that rhymes on occasion, but sometimes that is what the poem demands. Surely you have had your poetry muse make demands of you. Spend more time thinking “originally” and avoiding cliche, than you do how you get the words on the paper. I rearrange mine dozens of times before I am happy and then sometimes happiness is elusive and never comes. A dilemma. Oh, and no book editor that wishes to publish poetry should ever dismiss a rhyming poem out of hand solely because it rhymes…that is unless he/she is not well educated in poetry forms.

  15. My pet peeve is the industries resistance to rhyme. The rhyming quatrain is like the folk art of the poetry world: what people are used to and what the ivory towers dismiss out of hand. I know a lot of people that don’t “get” most of the free verse and don’t buy poetry because it isn’t the “folk art” rhyme that they know and like. Meanwhile, poetry mags struggle with limited circulation and blame it on people “not liking poetry” in general. I bought a few recent poetry mags at my local Goodwill just to see what was publishing: over half the poems left me going “Huh?” I couldn’t even tell you in the most basic terms what the poem was supposed to be about, or find any logic in why they decided to break a line here, or indent that line there. I try reading out loud to hear if there’s some kind of flow, but there isn’t.

    It seems the requirement for publication is that it not fit any conceivable “form.” Which is frustrating, because in high school I had to learn to write in REAL rhyme, and in several classical forms, and now that I’ve learned it, no publisher wants it.

    And for the record, the only non-classical poetry book I’ve been thinking of putting money down for is “The Hobo Poet,” written by the mother of our past president of our local writing contest. And don’t you know, it’s full of rhyming quatrains.

  16. My eyes are beginning to open and the light is seeking truth. Rhyme or not rhyme, that is the question. The answer is simply write for the right reasons. If its to get rich, try something besides writing. If its to express some mega minded idea that the world can’t live without;you’ll be talking to yourself and the walls before too long! If its primarily for yourself, you’re on to something, and may find peace and self satisfaction. In my opinion, the whole purpose of writing should be for self. If someone else finds anything to take away from your written moments of timeless miracles,that’s your present and your reward. Don’t expect a reader to take away the exact message you intended, for everyone’s an individual and will extract what they are capable of receiving at that particular moment in time. Let it be for those simple reasons you write and you’ll be happy whether you rhyme or not rhyme. Its for your moment in time you should write. I like rhyme if its done right, but I won’t be published or looked at seriously in today’s literary world, but I’m alright with that and happy with myself.

  17. You also can’t really overstate the case for actually picking up a book of contemporary poetry now and then (or often!) Not to learn “writing rules” or cynically figure out what’s “marketable,” but to hear the voices of poets that are writing now. There are a huge number of styles and approaches out there to be found and loved. Don’t be afraid to let poetry influence you. That’s how it works.

  18. Dah, while one should never simply “write for the market,” it is important to stay educated regarding individual journals’ and agents’ guidelines. High-quality work can always speak for itself, but you don’t want your work dismissed by an editor simply because the format did not match his/her explicit instructions!

  19. If Rimbaud had followed the “writing rules” for the market of his period
    … enough said.

    Writing for the market is a sign of weakness in creativity and vision,
    and your work becomes the voice and style of some one else.

    Be yourself; let your writing speak the truth, your truth.

  20. Poetry is not cast in stone. It is not an esoteric whisper of an excluding tongue. It depends on perception and interpretation. As for me, I enjoy a rhyming poem better and it tends to show a creative usage of words.

  21. To me, my poetry reflects feelings and memories.
    Those things that appear from nowhere and nag at one until they are reproduced on paper. Whether they rhyme or not is if no consequence.
    If others read and enjoy the creation. That’s what counts.

  22. Thanks for the hints. I’m reminded of Snoopy eliciting Lucy’s commentary on his writing … she was never satisfied, and as a result, he was never able to complete a piece.

    Sometimes, you just have to write what you have to write, and who knows when it will find a reader who appreciates it. I know that’s not a good business vision, but it’s what I have to offer.

  23. According to this article, I think I need to send a thank you to my high school creative writing teacher who broke me of my need to rhyme everything! I used to write every poem in very standard A-B C-B rhyme schemes and she pushed me to vary my style. Now when I feel the urge coming on, I make it subtle with near or internal rhyme. And when I want to feel a little more structured I try forms like pantoums and villanelles. My writing groups definitely approve of the change!

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