Poetry Editing 101 – Session One: Respecting the Process

Imagine you want to craft some fine gold rings. You have all the tools at your disposal to get the job done but you have to carry out all the work yourself, right from scratch.

The first thing you’re going to need to do is mine the ore. It’s hard, dirty business and by the end of it you’re going to feel like you’re done. But you’re not. When you look back at what you’ve achieved, what you have is a big pile of rubble. The smelting, shaping and polishing are all ahead of you.

This is the exact same process you follow when writing a poem (or prose, for that matter). That first draft you just finished might feel like it took all your best effort but, when you look back at it, what you really have is a pile of rubble. Writing it was an essential part of the process and you can’t possibly proceed without it. However, at this stage, it’s far from ready for publication.

The truth is, a good poem can take weeks to get right. A great one can take months. Sometimes a poem seems like it almost writes itself in a couple of drafts and edits, even on the same day, and is ready to go. Others need time to breathe, to rest in the conscious and subconscious before they fully reveal themselves.

It’s down to you to judge when a poem is ready, though it never hurts to get a second opinion. So I can only suggest you join a great writing community like The INKubator on discord where you can get some feedback and editing.

So, for the first post in this series on editing poetry, I’m going to take you through the complete process of writing a poem. I’m not going to talk about the editing here – those are the things we’ll be talking about in future lessons – but, rather, explore how much a poem can develop from the first draft through shaping and polishing until it’s ready for publication.

First Draft: The Idea

On the first draft it’s all about the outpouring of ideas onto the page. Here, I may write using the formation of poetry but I pay little attention to it. At this point my ideas are probably going to seem discordant and fragmentary, but that’s the nature of the pile of ore I’m mining. My grammar and punctuation are bound to be wrong and the rhythm non-existent. What I’m chiefly concerned with here is the theme, logical structure and any imagery I can get down, all ready for what comes next.

Butterflies don’t swarm to protect
the voracious caterpillar
which chews through the world
ingesting corruption
until it transforms —

Second Draft: Exploration

Now the poem will probably need a little time to mature and grow in your mind. Put it away, at least until you’ve had a chance to sleep on it. When you’re ready, you’re not even going to look at the poem again but – instead – write a new version from scratch. You’re free to write as many different versions as you want. This will help you uncover the new ideas which have been forming in your subconscious. Before I start this draft, I might also spend some time researching the images and subjects I’m using.

Larva stray into rotting pastures
and feed on corrupted vegetation.
They turn at the inevitability of change
and work their own puberty
with silk and spinnerets.

Third Draft: Finding Meaning

Now is the time to compare the versions you’ve written and synthesise them into a single poem. The primary consideration at the stage is meaning (the idea and logical concept within the poem), as you’ll be working on all the technical aspects and perfecting them through the editing process. Secondary to this is the shaping of the poem onto the page, which will still be open to editing but will start to take form at this stage.

The bald caterpillar migrates
to rotting fields
in its exploration.

It chews through
corrupted vegetation
towards metamorphosis
and works its own puberty
with silk and spinnerets.

Edit One: Building

Here is where we will start to apply all the fun techniques we’re about to learn. This is the most intense part of the process where we’ll be looking at the use of simile, metaphor and other tropes, abstractions and reification, word positions and enjambments, and a raft of other things. We’ll be looking at all of them separately in weeks to come.

The bald caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields.
Unwatched in its expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews through the world
towards inevitable metamorphosis
and works its own adolescence
with silk and spinnerets.

It hangs, motionless, tied
from the edge of a great
biblical fall before
breaking free
and falling, falling,
then winging to the sky.

Edit Two: Cutting

Here is where we will cut back everything that isn’t needed to convey either our meaning or a sense of beauty to the reader. We’ll make our final choices about layout here and may even make structural changes to further accent our underlying theme and logical process.

The naked caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields.
in unwatched expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews the world towards
inevitable metamorphosis,
working its own adolescence
with silk and spinnerets.

Chained to the edge
of a great biblical fall.
Then breaking free and falling,
falling, falling,
winging to the sky.


This is the final stage. Read the poem through several times and make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors. Give it a title. It’s after this stage that you should get someone to cast their eye over your work, to see if there’s anything you’ve missed.


The naked caterpillar migrates
from green to rotting fields,
in unwatched expedition
of dark earth and high branches.

It chews the world towards
inevitable metamorphosis,
working its adolescence
with silk and spinnerets,

chained to the edge
of a great biblical fall,
then breaking free and falling,
falling, falling,
winging to the sky.

So that’s it for this session. For some, there’s a rush to write and post work online, but I firmly believe you’re doing both yourself and the work a great disservice by publishing before it’s at its best. Taking a poem from the first draft to the final polish is an amazing process. Exactly how to do it, will be the primary focus of this series.

Keep writing your first and second drafts and have some to hand, as the next lesson will be on abstractions and how to deal with them.

In this new, bi-weekly series on poetry editing we’ll be looking at the primary potential problems from which first drafts tend to suffer. Forming a check-list, of sorts. through which you’ll be able to run your poems. The ultimate aim for this course is to enable you to bring your poetry to a publishable standard. To feel confident entering competitions and posting your work on the blockchain.

While we’re doing so, we’ll make some stops along the way to take some first glances into the theory of poetry, as I see it. I hope this will also be of interest to those who wish to further their understanding, as readers of poetry, in the nuances of the craft.

Before you go. please take a moment to give me a follow. It’s a great way you can help support the series and the blog. If you have any comments or questions about this lesson, or just want to say hello, feel free to post a comment below.

Now, go write!


Chat Technology

Chat Technology

Someone posted, old people die
in a world they do not recognise.

I remain challenged by younger
voices half a world away
with ideas fresh and demanding
that scroll upwards as we speak.

In my dotage, I may retreat
to fragile, corporeal safety,
but will let my bare thoughts hunt
and run amongst the cubs,

and expire hooked to machines
feeding me Facebook and Discord,
where my soul’s memory will remain,
rudely enveloped by the memes
of an ageless generation.


Harmony and Unison

Harmony and Unison

I am a writer                        I am a physicist
but I love science,             but I love novels,
though sometimes          though sometimes
I don’t understand           I don’t understand
the deeper parts              the deeper parts
of your knowledge.         of your knowledge.

I like arty films                    I like horror movies
where nothing                    with blood
really happens                    spraying terror
but                                            but
you can’t abide                   you can’t abide
clever images.                     mindless violence.

We watch a musical,        We watch a musical,
it doesn’t matter                I prefer
which one,                             Dreamgirls,
and lie close                          and lie close
under the covers.               under the covers.

I wrap you                              You tangle me
in arms and legs.                 in arms and legs.

We eat together.                We eat together.
I give you                                You give me
what I can’t finish.              your leftovers.
I smoke.                                   I hate it when you smoke.

We lounge                             We lounge
and watch                              and watch
American TV                        American TV
and snack                               and snack
(I live                                          (I live
on pop                                      on pies
and chocolate).                    and Ribena)

You tire before me             I feel tired.
and go to bed.                      Waiting for you,
I write,                                       I drift off.
hours pass.                            You touch me;
I come to bed                        I turn
to find you asleep.              to find you asleep.

Binding Off

Binding Off

The pullover your mother knitted
hangs from you like a newborn
at a breast.

She couldn’t manage the complex pattern;
guidebook charts of courses and wales
seemed over-technical and inappropriate;
she hadn’t enough yarn when casting on.

That hole, where the body was supposed
to meet the sleeve, is barely noticeable
to anyone but the two of you
and your string of girlfriends.

The shift of style to warp and weft
was unavoidable – a demonstration
of her developing skill. She carried
on two feet too far: it covered your groin
and reached down to your knees.

Your younger brother’s jumper
was the purest exhibition of her talent:
reverse stockinette, which fitted
him like a hauberk.

As you eat breakfast at your mother’s,
she repairs the holes and damaged seams.
Outside, your brother pulls up in a Lotus
and new Ferragamo suit.

Essential Books for Writers – Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet

…a one on one chat in a smokey bar with arguably the greatest contemporary dramatist around – a master of the craft of storytelling.

Welcome to the first in what I hope will be a long-running series.

I’m kicking this off by talking about what, for me, has been a major influence on my understanding of writing since I first read it, over ten years ago. Since then, I’ve lent, bought and not got back three copies. The one I have now is never being loaned out again.

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, David Mamet, is a man who seldom equivocates. He has been extremely vocal over the years with his views on writing, acting and, more recently, politics, delivering what have often been described as paper grenades which have brutalised herds of sacred cows. As the writer of plays such as Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross and films like Wag the Dog and Ronin, he’s established himself as a master and true force in the world of writing.

Three Uses of the Knife – is an outpouring onto the page of his ideas about dramaturgy, three-act structure, dramatisation and, most profoundly, the use and need for dramatic stories. This article is not so much a review as an explanation of why what is found inside this book may profoundly deepen your understanding of the craft.

I recently had a debate with someone who was telling me that three-act structure doesn’t exist.

It’s traditionally seen as the classic model which separates dramatic narratives into three parts, the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution. This chap said that three-act structure is actually four-act structure. To be fair, I don’t remember his exact arguments but it really came down to the idea that it was more convenient for him (and maybe others) to split the second act in two. A thing that he said changed the nature of the structure entirely.

As soon as I heard that, I realised he’d failed to understand the significance of three-act structure whatsoever – that it is the map for the protagonist’s journey of change through the narrative. Split it up in as many ways as you like and it’s still going to amount to exactly the same thing.

If you liked you could split the second act of Star Wars (which runs from Luke’s arrival at Mos Eisley to the escape with the plans for the Death Star) in two. You could say it splits at the point where they rescue Leia, but it doesn’t actually change anything about the story or, through it, Luke’s process of change.

It was when reading Three Uses of the Knife that I first started to become aware of this idea and how those deep level clamps and pivots, which are invisible to most readers, are, in fact, unavoidable. Stories take their form because they’re a reflection of how we experience change as people. They’re a distillation of everyday life and the way we reach for our own goals and overcome adversity.

That’s why Mamet is happy to give drama a purpose but I’ll leave that for him to explain in the book.

The style here really is no-nonsense. This can be quite easily seen in his choice of analogy for the three acts, which ultimately gives this book its title:

Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly, said: You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.

This is a good example of what to expect from this book. The analogies chosen by Mamet can, at times, seem indirect but they’re more about giving a fundamental and personal understanding rather than simply offering technical advice.

At around 80 pages Three Uses might seem underwhelming but, then, there isn’t a wasted word in the thing. It isn’t a writing manual by any means. It’s a one on one chat in a smokey bar with arguably the greatest contemporary dramatist around – a master of the craft of storytelling.

I was lucky enough to go to a college which had academic tutorials. Once a week I’d sit in front of a tutor and discuss an essay I’d written. The tutors never held back and I’d often have to run to the library afterwards to work out what they’d been saying.

That’s what this book is – a tutorial with David Mamet. It’s the kind of thing you’ll never be able to take in all at once but you’ll be happy to revisit from time to time and pick up the things you missed first, second, third and fourth time around.

There is a Lightness to the Night

There is a Lightness to the Night

Sunlight lifts the standing air
that evening sets upon your face.
The symmetry of bricks and streets
and rows of streetlights –
perfect this place.

There is a stillness in this smell
of streets, sun-baked all day,
that rises up as heavy rain
begins to fall.
The smell of clay.
The warmth of wetness.
How your clothes cling.

There is a feeling to this time,
of nights now lost.
The line of streetlights
only show how dark night is
and how your distant voice
can bring a lightness to the night.

The Ballad of Billy and the Green Dragon


The Ballad of Billy and the Green Dragon

The village was quiet on the first day of Spring,
as a great shadow loomed and the birds ceased to sing,
when right in the square there landed a dragon.
It roared out then scratched at its nose with its talon.

This sudden arrival suspended the snickers
of the boys watching Joan as she hung out her knickers.
The young, courting couples were terribly flustered
as their coitus became coitus interruptus.

The villagers screamed as the dragon did say:
“I’m not going to kill you – at least not today.
No village survives unless it can pay me.
I’ll be back in three days for a newly born baby.”

With a flap of its wings it took to the air
as the horrified villagers screamed down the square.
“We’ve only three days and the dragon will eat us
and we don’t have a baby, or even a fetus.”

But Billy, the blacksmith’s boy, said,”I’ve a plan.
bring me all of the smelliest food that you can.”
He raided Joan’s clothes line, a peg for to borrow
and plugged up his rectum (his face full of sorrow).

For three days and nights the boy ate all he could
from mouldy old sausages, eggs – bad and good,
olives and anchovies, Camembert cheese,
grease that the old ladies smeared on their knees.

After seventeen Big Macs and twenty McFlurrys
he stuffed down samosas and six Madras curries.
He ate fifteen cabbages and, when he was done,
he could feel a strong pressure building up in his bum.

On the very third day Billy felt he was ready.
He stood in the town square and patted his belly.
The green dragon landed and said, “Where’s my baby?”
The boy turned and cried, “Oh my God! Someone save me!”

The dragon did laugh in between all his roars
but he failed to spot Billy who was dropping his draws.
The peg darted out as he reached for his toes.
It flew at the dragon and went right up its nose.

Billy’s behind let out fart after guff,
spraying the dragon with monstrous stuff:
streams of black diarrhea, yellowy pus,
unbroken remnants of sweetcorn and nuts.

“You’ll burn for this insult,” the dragon did roar.
It opened its huge jaws, a breath for to draw.
Billy pulled up his trousers and ran for his life
as the hot dragon fire made the methane ignite.

The dragon exploded and the people did sing
all the houses were covered in feces and wing.
They picked up its head, stuck it high on a pike
right next to the knickers (which Joan didn’t like).

And Billy the hero sat low in the grass.
He picked a fresh dock leaf and cleaned up his arse.
So rise from your seats. Come lift up your flagon
and toast the great arsehole that slew the green dragon.

11 Dec 1986: Breakdown

11 Dec 1986: Breakdown

Ronny pressed rewind, setting the reel-to-reel whirring, and watched the counter till it hit zero. He pressed play again. The racks of electronic gear surrounding him were now at their hottest – the reason the studio didn’t need any other kind of heating, even on a cold December’s day. The visual monitors sat flat before the hum of the recorded air clicked in, raising them a single bar for a flash of a second. LEDs shone all around, making a marked impact on the dimly lit sound studio. He sliced a piece of Parmesan in half with a butter knife and popped it daintily into his mouth. The salt cut through his palette and triggered his eyelids closed. He picked up a bottle of Coke from the floor and gulped a quarter of it down.

“It says no drinks are allowed in the studio,” said Storm. He looked about fifteen. The yin yang tattoo on his right forearm didn’t make him look any cooler than a twelve year old trying to smoke.

“That only applies to anyone who isn’t me.” Ronny didn’t like many people. In fact, he outright hated most of them. And if people were annoying, musicians were invariably worse, especially young ones who hadn’t earned their place.

As a general rule, no one was allowed in here. It was Ronny’s house after all. The studio, as far as he was concerned, was the Holiest of Holies.

“Bill said you’d be like this.” Storm sat back in his leather chair making a horrible squeak. “A miserable, grumpy old man. You leave me waiting outside for twenty minutes…”

Ronny picked up the butter knife and pointed it at him. Get the message, kiddy; Schtum; Keep quiet; Shut the fuck up.

Storm held up his hands as the track began to play. “You’d think in a studio you’d have a chair that didn’t squeak.”

Ronny stopped the tape again and rewound it. “The chair you’re sitting on is from my study. There is only one chair that belongs in this studio. There is only one person who belongs in this studio. I’m letting you sit in as a favour to Bill, who said he wanted you to understand the mastering process. Now, while I can’t help but applaud that, I can’t actually do my job or teach you anything if you won’t put a sock in it.”

“Alright then,” said Storm, “but ain’t mastering just getting the album ready? Making the fade out happen smoothly and stuff? The producer and studio engineer did the mixdown already and it sounds cool. Now I’m in some bloke’s house taking abuse.”

“If there is a black art in the field of music production, it’s mastering.” As Ronny played with settings on the limiters, he didn’t look at the boy. “Like you, most people don’t have any idea what that means. They think it’s preparing the recording to industry standards, ready to be pressed onto the acetate or master. This is true but it’s only a small part of the process.

“Mastering is where the magic happens. Mixdown is all about finding the right levels for each of the instruments, adding that killer pop effect to the lead vocals – so easy a kid could do it. Mastering is the process that breathes life into a song and gives it a sound, and it’s all done with equalisers and compressors and a thousand pound an hour set of ears. That’s where I come in. I work fast and efficiently when I’m left to it and have more number ones under my belt than any pop star you could name. Don’t get confused, my studio is in my house because I like working from home.” He pressed play again.

The track wasn’t bad: a punk cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls, though why anyone would want to cover a song by one of the most humourless bands in existence, Ronny had no idea. Storm was noted on the tape case as vocalist and guitarist. Average lead guitarist but a great rhythm player – had the groove of the song down cold.

“So you think this sounds good?” Ronny made some small adjustments to an equaliser and a compressor then switched them on. As soon as he did, the guitars on the track enveloped the vocals like a blanket but without overpowering them in the slightest. The bass suddenly became sharp and focused without reducing its earthy rumble and the drums seemed to swim round him as though he was at the stool himself, when the drummer played a fill, the toms rang out around them.

“Woah, that’s fucking amazing.”

Ronny smiled as he began to fine tune an equaliser. By the penultimate section – a breakdown to bass and drums as the guitars pulled out for the final build up – it sounded perfect, but at seven minutes and six seconds there was an audio artefact.

Ronny rewound the tape to listen to it again, and again, each time adjusting another device to pinpoint the noise. The fourth time there was a squeal that spread clearly across the audible frequency ranges.

“Did you hear that?” Storm sat up straight in his chair.

Did I hear it? Jumped up little brat. “That’s it. It’s time for you to get lost so I can fix your recording.”

“But I thought…”

“Fuck off, kid. It’s past ten and Bill will be waiting for you outside.” He was sure Storm was giving him some kind of negative look.

“Fucking grumpy bastard.”

Ronny kept concentrating on the meters as Storm shuffled out and the door shut behind him.

Three hours later he decided to give up for the day. He had no idea what was causing the squeal. On the original recording it was inaudible. With the slightest bit of adjustment it popped up again.

He left the studio and locked up, then walked through his garden, lighting his way with a torch, unlocked the kitchen door, then locked it behind him.

A sandwich was all he could be bothered to make and eat. A shower would wait till the morning, He got into bed and turned out the lights, pulling the string that hung over his bed.

He lay on his back, letting his mind drift. It took only a few minutes before the squeal popped into his mind, over and over again along with the thought that maybe he shouldn’t have left this particular problem unresolved.

Ronny forced himself to think of something else, Mozart’s Sonata in C. As soon as it fell into the minor structure, there it was again – the squeal. He tried again with the Concerto for Two Pianos, but as soon as he hit the series of escalating note repetitions he heard it again. He turned over onto his front to try and get to sleep, but there it was, changing now to the tone of a marimba. Then once again, only this time it wasn’t the squeal at all. It sounded like the door bell.

He got out of bed, put on his robe and went to the front door. If it was his bell, as unlikely as that was at this damn hour, he wondered who it could be. He turned the porch light on and looked through the frosted window of the front door.

There was nobody outside.

For a moment he considered unlocking the front door and sticking his head outside, just to see if someone was there, then thought about the possibility of a clever burglar, waiting to smash his head in with an iron bar before robbing his house, and thought better of it. After all, he probably only imagined it. He went back upstairs, got into bed and rolled onto his front.

Ding Dong.

There it was again. Was it real or not? He got up and opened his bedroom door without turning the light on and stood there motionless at the top of the stairs, waiting for it to ring again. His skin grew colder in the breeze blowing up through the hallway as ten minutes passed in total silence. He shook his head, slapped his cheek and went back to bed.

Ding Dong.

Right, that was it, he definitely heard it this time. He tightened the gown around himself and ran downstairs, staring through the window – to see nobody there whatsoever.

Who the hell could it be? His mind calculated the possibilities. Greg had phoned him yesterday, deeply depressed about another girl he’d fallen for – fifteen years too young and totally out of his league.

Ronny had given his usual line, three in the morning or whatever, if you need to chat…

Surely Greg would have called first? Maybe not if he wasn’t acting rationally. Ronny turned to the answerphone by the door and there was a new message.

“It’s Bill here. I should thank you for letting Storm in on the mastering session but you’ve totally managed to piss him off. I’m not blaming you – it’s probably my fault for thinking it might be a good idea. He said he doesn’t want to use you again, even after I tried to talk him down. Anyhow, speak to you soon I imagine.”

So, that was it. He should have realised it from the start: no burglar looking to knock him out and steal his stuff, no friend in distress needing to talk at four in the morning, just a egotistical musician wanting to give him a hard time in retaliation for a few harsh words.

He was probably out there now, parked in a car round the corner with the rest of his band, smoking pot and laughing his arse off about their funny little prank. Maybe they were eating a bucket of chicken and flinging the bones out of the window, daring one another to take turns ringing the bell.

Maybe he should have been nicer to the kid. It drove him mad to have anyone else in the studio and Bill knew that. No, fuck it. This prank was a serious step too far. In the morning he’d make some calls, sully the kid’s name around his friends – little bastard.

However, before he went back upstairs, he stopped by the kitchen to get his biggest and sharpest cooking knife and took it back upstairs with him, If someone was going to try and break in, it was best to be prepared. Besides, it had been almost twenty minutes since the bell had gone and the game was probably over.

Ronny got back into bed again.

Ding Dong. Ding Dong. Ding…

“For fuck’s sake.”


Ronny got up, ran into the front bedroom and looked down at the street below. No one there, he must be hiding round the side of the house.

Even after ten minutes of looking and waiting there was no sign of Storm. Now the doorbell was ringing in his mind every few seconds.

He went back into his bedroom and picked up the knife, then tiptoed down the stairs and unlocked the door as quietly as he could so he’d be able to get outside fast and catch the idiot. Then he made his way to the top of the stairs, turned and crouched – waiting.

The wall clock ticked from the lounge. Out through the front door he could see the movement of shadows or someone, it was hard to tell.

Ding Dong.

He sprung forwards and felt himself being pulled round as his right foot caught the hem of his gown. It threw him off balance and left him tumbling down the stairs, crashing onto the carpet.


The cleaning lady tried hard to keep her composure as she sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of hot sweet tea. The officers were still photographing the hallway as a detective took her statement. She couldn’t get the image out of her head. The terrible sight she’d encountered after she unlocked the door that morning – Ronny, lying on his back at the foot of the stairs with a knife plunged deep into his chest.

And the sound – there was something so final about it – the continuous ringing of a broken doorbell.