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Taking your Writing to the Next Level

 

Taking you Writing to the Next Level: What the Poet-Editor can do for you

 

Every semester, my creative writing classes are split into two units: poetry and prose. And poetry always comes first. Cue the moans and groans.

“Yeah, yeah. I know,” I say, raising my arms in mock surrender. “You don’t like poetry. It’s too hard. No one reads it…”

“Exactly,” a few brave souls are happy to say (this is before they learn I’m a poet, of course), “no one cares about poetry. Why don’t we start with stories?”

Don’t worry. I get it. Who doesn’t like a good story? And who does read poetry these days?

Story is the best way to connect with our audiences and illustrate abstract concepts. It’s why Air Jordans sell better than…that other guy’s shoe. Story is everywhere: in newspapers, on TV, on our Facebook feeds, on billboards. Story is how we understand fields as disparate as history and physics. Story even helps our brains create and store memory.

So it should be no surprise that story is one of the most important tools of the composer of prose, regardless of genre, audience, or purpose. From the novelist writing that epic to the neuroscientist preparing a paper for Science to the songwriter composing a jingle for Coca-Cola—all writers are storytellers.

“Yes, stories are great, but language comes first, and the best way to learn how to use language is via poetry,” I say to the class as I write the course’s mantra on the board: If you do _____ well in verse, you will do _____ well in story. “Everything, everything you must do in a story you must first learn to do in a poem.”

If you can paint a clear, startling image in a poem, you can do so in story. If you can create a connection between a car and a kite in a line of verse, you can in story. If you can compose a plot and cast of characters that will compel your audience to actually read your poem, you can apply those skills to story.

Poems, after all, are all about using language as efficiently and effectively (there’s a difference) as possible without losing character and voice. To write a good poem, a poet must effectively craft language across numerous domains (narrative, lyric, metaphor, character, image) without losing its original value (voice, tone, intent). This takes quite an editorial eye.

“And without the editorial eye of a poet,” I explain to my students, “your prose is doomed.”

Okay, okay. This might be a bit dramatic. They’re college kids. Cut me some slack) This axiom—as is true of all axioms—does not always prove true. That said, as an editor, I find that a lack of attention to language is what often holds a piece back, be it a manuscript or a corporate website.

Most prose focuses on plot, character, and world building while abandoning all the other critical elements of good prose. The result is flat, stilted, and immature chunks of text.

No matter how good your plot may be, if the pacing is off, that couch potato will change that channel. No matter how “poetic” your description of that castle, if it’s inefficiently drawn, that agent’s tossing your manuscript in the trash. No matter how many times you revise that scene, if you don’t understand how scene works, that exciting shoot-out will read “not with a bang but a whimper.”

This is where poet-editors like myself enter the fold.

It goes without saying that the poet-editor can help shape your words into more effective and, depending on what you are trying to do, more “poetic” language, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s not what most poet-editors spend their time on. When I say language, I don't mean “pretty words” or poetic sentences. I’m talking about how language allows us to create reality with the senses and to shape the illusion of reality in your texts.

If you are struggling with structure, conflict, and/or resolution, poets are expert storytellers in long and short form. Check out Brian Barker’s “Crow Gospel Coming Down From The Mountain” and Judy Jordan’s “Moon of Hunger, Moon of Coyote Howl” for examples.

If your dialogue is flat and predictable, that’s probably because your characters are exchanging information rather than talking. Surprise and word play are two of the poet’s most powerful tools, and poetry often emulates conversation and speech.

If your pacing is off, poets are experts at moving a story forward without sacrificing voice or meaning. We are efficient and effective storytellers. Check out Gary Soto’s “Oranges” and Sharon Old’s “I Go Back to 1937,” and I think you’ll see what I mean.

If your having difficulty creating your world or you tell too much when you need to show, this the poet is master of.

I have also developed some unique approaches to the editing of prose that helps me see the text in a way that can dramatically improve a manuscript.

When line editing, for example, I often reshape entire paragraphs into poems, edit them as such, turn them back into paragraphs, and repeat the process until the language is appropriately refined.

When evaluating a manuscript, I often chart scenes in lines of poetry and construct a “poem from prose” visual outline of the entire MS. This helps me identify a manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and illustrate how the author might address them.

If I’m performing a substantive/developmental edit on a poorly paced narrative, I often create the same “poem from prose” outline and mark scenes that move the story forward and suggest revisions/cuts to those that do not. If a manuscript tells too often when it should show, I will scrutinize the sentences and paragraphs themselves. If a manuscript needs help shaping its characters, I first examine their characters’ dialogue, body language, and the language used to describe them before I worry about who their characters claim to be.

With the poet-editor’s attention to detail and expansive knowledge of story and how to best tell stories, the poet-editor can help you take your memoir, advertisement, short story, web-copy, and more to the next level. 

I’m not sure if this is the end of the piece or not. I considered bringing the reader back to the classroom in a traditional narrative form but also like this less-narrative closing. What do you thi

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