People love long poems. There are great, epic, long poems in the world. That said, Writer’s Relief oversees many poetry submissions over the course of a year, and this remains true: Shorter poems seem to be more readily picked up by editors than longer poems. In poetry contests, tight line restrictions can mean many words must be left on the cutting room floor.
Regardless of why or where you’re submitting your poems, here’s what matters most at the end of the day: Whether you’re writing a long poem or a short poem, poetry is about condensed language.
Get that? Condensed. Some poets talk about an economy of language in poetry. Whatever you call it, it means getting rid of absolutely all unnecessary words and phrases that don’t carry their weight and then some.
Poetic Liposuction: 5 Ways To Trim The Fat From Your Poems
Nix unnecessary adjectives. Do you really need the words “loamy and earthy” to describe “soil”? Doesn’t “loamy,” in context, already imply “earthy”? And for that matter, isn’t all soil “earth”? If one adjective can do the job of two, cut one out and rejoice. A good poet doesn’t lay it on thick; she/he gives just enough and not a word more.
Ditch the doubles. Some poems need double-spacing. But from what we hear from lit mag editors, most poems don’t need it. New writers tend to fall back on double-spaced lines to make their poems look more poemly. Learn more: Poetry Turnoffs: Styles And Formatting That Make Editors Cringe.
Turn adverbs into regular verbs. Rather than “he walked briskly and with purpose” or “she sank dejectedly downward in her chair, try “he strode” or “she slumped in her chair.” Of course, this goes for prose writers too! Learn More: Putting Verve In Your Verbs.
Don’t write like you talk. In everyday speech, we can be lazy. Unless we’re shouting something like “Stop that thief!” it doesn’t matter if we splurge on a few dozen or so extra words to make a point. We’ve got time to make our point.
But in poetry, brevity wins. Some poems have an underlying sense of urgency that come from an economy of language. Instead of I wanted to ask him to take me to the dance, you might try I hoped he would ask me to dance. Again, prose writers take note.
Stop thinking like a prose writer. If you’re writing a poem, you’re not writing a short story.
Get to the essence of your poem. Dig into the core, find the beating heart, and cut it out of the body of your poem (gross, but stay with us). The heart of your poem will (probably) keep beating even without all the extra baggage of the body. And if it doesn’t, that’s what drafts are for. You can always go back.
You may need to take some classes, attend some writing conferences, and learn to dig deep in order to understand how your prosaic/poetic impulses lay down on paper.
The Bottom Line For Editing Poems
Don’t let fear of writing too many words hold you back during your first draft. First and foremost, follow your impulses.
But remember: Cut fearlessly. Be bold. How much can you say in as few words as possible? The worst that will happen is you’ll need to revert to a saved draft.
QUESTION: What do you do to condense your poems?