25 revision strategies
I hope all is well with you—
I know you got an email from me yesterday, but I’m back again today because I’ve been thinking a lot about writing good poems. I had an interview with a magazine this week in which we talked at length about writing, and revision, and advice—and, as you may have noticed in the last handful of emails, I’ve been rereading Sontag’s journals this month; these occasionally include intelligent maxims about the craft of writing, and so that, too, has contributed to today’s post.
About a year ago I made some Brian Eno-style “revision hacks” flash cards. They’re exactly what you would expect: 25 small rectangles of cardstock, each of which contains a different revision strategy. I made them for myself, mostly, based on what that has been productive for my own work—though I sometimes sell them for $5 at local craft fairs (among other things), which can be very fun, too.
Today, though, I thought I would offer them to you here in list-form, in case they might be helpful for you. These are just some exercises to try with a poem that simply isn’t working—or with a poem that is. (Because I, for one, always want less articles, less abstractions, less weak nouns—as both an editor and a reader.)
25 Revision Strategies:
Find more music.
Remove any abstractions.
Cut the first stanza.
Revise any “weak” line breaks, where the end-word is an article, pronoun, preposition, or adjective rather than a strong verb or noun.
Cut the poem by 25%.
Move your favorite line to the very beginning.
Try adding or removing punctuation.
Reread the poem and then set it aside. Now: rewrite it, as best you can, from memory.
Replace all the nouns with more specific nouns.
Use more white space.
Cut the poem by 50%.
Rewrite the narrative using only imagery & detail relating to the five senses.
Rewrite it as a rhyming sonnet.
Add a question somewhere. Then add a fragment elsewhere. Then a single-word sentence.
Rewrite the poem backwards, starting from the last sentence and ending with the first.
Add a metrical sentence. (Ex: iambic, trochaic, anapestic, etc.)
Start with a litany or anaphora.
Remove all the adverbs and adjectives. Instead: strengthen the verbs & nouns.
Address the audience directly (whether that be general readers or a specific “you”).
Try a stanzaic pattern. (Ex: couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.)
Replace “I” with “you.”
Mess with tense. If past tense, switch to present. If present tense, switch to past.
Add in a line of dialogue. Or: add in a quotation you love.
Cut the poem by 75%.
Remove every article you can. (Ex: an, a, the, etc.)
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The adjective is the enemy of the noun.
The unit of the poet is the word, the unit of the prose writer is the sentence.
-Susan Sontag, 1980