Trimming the Fat

file000214378531I was going over a few of my earlier poems last week, and I noticed something interesting. These poems, ones I’d considered little jewels when I’d written them, no longer appealed. In a few cases, I thought the writing sucked.

Is that growth or is that person/place/time filters? Probably a little of both.

So I’ve been experimenting with trimming things, but not without some guidance. I picked up an excellent book — In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit. Not only am I getting inspiration, but also some lessons in paring down the content.

That, along with some help from the most popular poetry MOOC — Modern and Contemporary Poetry (or ModPo as we fans call it) over on Coursera, here’s how I’m revising poetry. In fact, let’s look at one I’m about to make up on the spot:

Smart shopper, he called her as she

hauled in fifteen bags of

books and other people’s memorabilia

culled from a yard sale where

ten bucks could score you

half the belongings of one

recently deceased man with

excellent taste.

Rocky start, right? But we should get every idea down first, I think. Trimming can (and certainly should) come later.

Let’s look at this a moment. The theme is there — possessions and acquiring things. There are also judgments — she’s a smart shopper according to the man speaking, the person whose belongings they were had excellent taste according to the people buying the stuff.

What does this need? How about:

  • Clear emotional direction
  • Alliteration
  • More impact with fewer words

It needs more than that, but let’s just focus on those three things this time.

So the man speaking — is he happy, sarcastic, angry, what? Let’s give him some direction:

‘Smart shopper’ he snickered as she

struggled with bags of books….

So now he has a different persona, doesn’t he? Plus, we’ve worked in some alliteration in the repetitive “s” sounds.

Let’s introduce our “she” through her actions:

…as she

struggled with bags of books,

shining vinyl records, yard sale finds

she culled from boxes, each one a

piece from another time, another


We could keep trimming, adding elements and refining them until we’ve developed a full picture with an economy of words. The idea is to take the original idea and pull out the extraneous.

Here are some things I start with when I edit:

Adverbs, conjunctions, articles and repeated words. My worst habit is “that” in all my writing. By stripping out what doesn’t need to be there, I get to what I’m really trying to say.

Loose ideas. Where is it just a description? That’s where I’ll try to wrap some definition around what’s there, or I’ll scrap it entirely and find a better idea to take its place. In this case, did I need to mention a man with excellent taste? Not really.

Numbers, time, and timing. Does it need to be there? Do you really need to know that she had fifteen bags? Or that it was ten bucks for the lot?

There are no end of revisions I could make to this, and I could probably write another poem from the stuff I’ve cut out. But the idea is to go over how I trim the fat from my poems, and maybe give you some ideas of your own.

What process do you use to edit your work?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s