‘Thinking Like an Editor’

The current issue of Poets & Writers has a serendipitously timed article by former Alice James Books executive editor April Ossman, “Thinking Like an Editor.” It’s about putting the individual poems in a poetry manuscript in the best sequence. Oddly enough, I’ve spent the past two weeks reordering my manuscript, and the article was a big help.

First, Ossman recommends letting go of poems that may not fit the overall book but that we as writers are nonetheless attached to. As the Jedi say, attachment is forbidden.

Second, she suggests considering strong newer poems the writer may not have included in the book.

The next step is I think what helped me the most in the past few weeks — listing each poems themes and subjects then separating them based on those similarities. Another suggestion I found helpful was to rate each poem. I gave each an “A,” “A+” or A-,” depending on how strong I consider each to be.

After that, the task was to create a sort of narrative arc through the themes in the poems. The tricky part of that, I find, is that the themes and subjects tend to overlap quite a bit, and that made the “story” feel somewhat predictable. This time, though I concentrated more on abstract themes — death, love, loss — which provided more breathing room to interweave the themes a subjects so they were more like threads throughout the manuscript.

The dual strategies of organizing by theme/subject and  relative strength of the poems have illuminated the manuscript, which I’ve reordered many times over the years. But this time, the book has a better flow and a more professional feel. As I decided on the poems’ final sequence, I actually gasped aloud when I saw how the book had come together in a fresh, cohesive way. Here’s to hoping poetry editors and contest readers everywhere agree.

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~ by ericedits on March 18, 2011.

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