Common Mistakes and Tips for Revision
Kelsey Donner & Sara Krauss, UR Writing Consultants
(printable version here)

Common Mistakes

It's the little things that make the difference. Common errors are typically the easiest things to fix in poetry and writing in general; taking the simple extra step to fix those errors can make a dramatic difference in the quality of your writing. Here we have some mistakes that professional poets and professors find in students' poetry.

Q: What common mistakes have you noticed in student poetry?

Dr. Sascha Feinstein: Poet

A: Young writers tend to state emotion, e.g., "I hit the ball with anger," or, more simply, "I feel angry." Similarly, there's a tendency to explain what actions or images mean. I tell students over and over again to use specific imagery and to let the image do the talking. Avoid commentary whenever possible. This is crucial. If I had to teach just one thing to young writers, it would be the power of the image.

Students also need to embrace the simple truth that art demands tension. (You can write poems without any tension, but you'll want to publish those with Hallmark.) For this reason, my very first assignment often asks students to write a poem that unites opposites. Without some kind of tension, there's no room for development.

Professor Tarfia Faizullah: University of Richmond Faculty, Poet

A: The main issues I find with student poetry are incomplete sentences, poor grammar, and attempting to be pretentious with their writing.

Caityln Paley: University of Richmond Alum '09, Poet

A: The thesaurus is a great resource but it's a bad idea to substitute words you would never use. The diction of the poem ends up sounding forced and unnatural. It's often unnecessary to repeat the information the title contains in the body of the poem.

"Killing Your Darlings": How to Revise Poetry and Why You Should

In order to improve our writing, we sometimes have to acknowledge that sections we loved or even felt very proud of had to be cut in the final draft. We often get so caught up in our favorite pieces of our writing that we fail to see them at face value. We need to recognize that accepting this stage of the revising process will only improve our final products and, most likely, make us even more proud of the overall piece than the tiny passages that we clung to so feverishly before revision. As Intro to Creative Writing Professor Tarfia Faizullah says, revision "allows us to constantly improve upon what we have already written so that we may get closer and closer to enacting the complexity of the world."

You might be thinking this is easier said than done, and you would be correct. Writers often base their poetry on personal feelings or events, which is hard to detach yourself from when you shift into revision mode. It can be difficult to both accept that further revisions to your poetry are needed and that not everyone thinks your line about comparing the melting snowman to the melting polar ice caps is as poignant as you do. This is one of the best things about poetry - more than any other form of writing, poetry imparts many different interpretations depending on who reads it. Below are some tips to help you remain detached throughout the revision process.

Three Scenarios That Deter You From Revising
  1. The "sense of completion." Perhaps you are not actually emotionally attached to your poetry, but rather you simply don't have the time, motivation or energy to revise it. You are feeling what Keith Hjortshoj describes as the "‘sense of completion'" in his guide The Transition to College Writing (67). It already took you forever to write the poem and now that you have, it's finished and you don't want to think about it anymore.
  2. Emotional attachment to your poetry. Poets often base their work on personal thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Writing in such a way can make you feel very vulnerable and protective of your work, because it is a reflection of you.
  3. "Stage fright." As Hjortshoj describes it, this "stage fright" results from feeling that, once your poem is finished, it must be perfect and untouchable, and can no longer be changed. (71)

Tips For Revising

  1. Like academic writing, poetry has a diverse audience who will interpret your work in different ways. When someone offers you constructive criticism on a line or two of your poem, try to see where he or she is coming from before you defend it from the doom of the delete key. Put yourself in your reader's shoes as a way to remove yourself from the thoughts and feelings you were having when you wrote the poem. This will help you understand their constructive criticism and see your piece more clearly.
  2. The first thought isn't often the best thought. In the words of distinguished poet Sascha Feinstein, there's a reason we tell friends to think before they speak - "because their first thought probably isn't their best!" Feinstein points out that this is also true of your own poetry. We often write about something that upsets us or has otherwise marked us in some way, and our poetry is a way to work through our emotions. As Feinstein says, "when we're overwhelmed with emotion, language tends to fail us. We need to go back to our emotional bursts and inspired ideas in order to shape them into art."
  3. The one time it's good to procrastinate. If you feel attached to the subject matter of your poem, don't read through or think about the poem for a few days or a week if you have the time. This will allow you to clear your head before beginning the revision process.
  4. Stretch the truth. If you write with total honesty about a poignant event in your life, you will most likely become defensive when the poem is critiqued because you are protecting the truth. Writing poetry is perhaps one of the only instances in your life in which you will be praised for fabricating lies. As Professor Tarfia Faizullah suggests, it is much more important to privilege "what the poem needs to be a stronger piece of writing rather than privileging what 'actually' happened."
  5. Read aloud. Reading your poem out loud can help you determine what pieces of your poem might not be working or flowing well.
  6. Rely on memory. UR alum and poet Caitlyn Paley suggests putting your poem away for a while, then jotting down the lines you can recall from memory. This will help you get rid of your weaker lines.

Sources Cited:
Hjortshoj, Keith. "How Good Writing Gets Written." Transition to College Writing. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 56-78. Print.

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