An Editor’s Bane.

31 Jan

Wow, decomP magazine just published one of my favorite poems from my book in their February issue! *tiny giddy dance*

One of the reasons I’m so proud of the book (which you can buy here, ahem), is because the manuscript was so thoroughly vetted and edited, by myself, Roger Bonair-Agard, Rachel McKibbens, Derrick Brown, and about ten other hardcore poets and readers.

On my travels, I still, bizarrely, encounter the occasional poet who totally disavows editing. These poets generally explain this phenomenon by claiming to be God’s mouthpiece, implying that tampering with the words as they gushed out would be blasphemous.

Okaaaay. If a carpenter were going to build you a house, how would you feel if he told you he didn’t believe it were possible to make mistakes? That wherever the hammer fell was God’s will? How would you feel if he told you he’d never read any books about carpentry or actually practiced it himself – he’d just watched a lot of people build stuff before? What if he told you he didn’t believe in measuring tools?

I try to instill in folks the notion that poetry is a craft, first and foremost, and most of us who practice poetry are craftspeople. If we’re lucky, we’re also artists, or we become artists with a lot of work – but learning how to use the tools comes first.

A few months ago, I started working as an assistant editor at Muzzle Magazine, an online literary journal started by my friend Stevie Edwards. It’s fun, rewarding, and occasionally frustrating. After a while, you begin to see a lot of the same mistakes over and over. These are often flaws I have to work through in my own poems. A few can be used very well indeed, but not constantly. Here are a few recurrences that drive me a little batty:

Overuse of the noun-to-verb paradigm. You know what I mean. Saying something like: “I airplaned over the fault lines of my past…” It’s kind of a cool phenomenon in the English language (I’m a big fan of cupcaking, for example), but seems pretentious and lazy when overused.

Meaningless capitalization. If the beginning of every line of a poem is capitalized, it should be capitalized for a reason – not just because Microsoft Word has that setting on default. Poems written in traditional forms often have the first letter of each line capitalized. If you’re rocking free verse, don’t lean on that default without a reason.

Inconsistent punctuation. If you don’t give enough of a damn to care about where your commas go, I don’t give a damn about your poem.

Flat worlds. Every poem has the potential to surprise, astonish, overwhelm, shock, amaze. Pretty much every poem should have a turn, or something unexpected, even if it’s quiet.

Cliches. I’ve talked about this one a lot already. If your metaphor comes too readily or you’ve heard other people say your phrase over and over, it isn’t fresh. You’re working from default instead of crafting your own ideas.

Overuse of the verb “to be” in any form. Use other verbs. It’ll strengthen your poem tremendously.

Fragments for days. Tiring. Hard eye-read. Editor brain combustion.

Above all, remember that you should be able to justify your own choices. If you’re thinking about submitting your poems to a journal or contest, have friends look over your work before you send it in, if only to copyedit.

Good luck, darlings! ❤

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5 Responses to “An Editor’s Bane.”

  1. Jeffrey Spahr-Summers January 31, 2011 at 6:39 pm #

    Well said Laura! 🙂

  2. Donna Vorreyer January 31, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Great commentary – these are exactly the things we start teaching young writers to avoid. Unfortunately, some writers think they are done learning and that writing is “all good” if it comes easily.

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