Monday, September 21, 2009

Editing a poetry manuscript & contests

Why would a poet, whose business is language, seek outside help with putting together a poetry manuscript? For me, the answer is complicated, but I can readily think of a one-word answer: contests. David Alpaugh, in his essay "What's Really Wrong with Poetry Contests?" cited discouraging statistics. Your manuscript, in each contest, may go up against 500 others, each more carefully groomed than the next. A misspelling, inexact punctuation, or grammatical error in the first few pages could be enough for the initial screener to toss it aside. That reader may have 50 manuscripts to review and be itching for an excuse. Never mind subtler issues, such as poor poem titles, a poem's draggy opening, too much telling, a poor close.

Thinking of these landmines, I decided I needed help with my manuscript, Gods of Water and Air. When Bryan Roth, Director of Colorado Poets Association and a freelance poetry editor, began to go over the manuscript with me, poem by poem, line by line, I realized how much of an edge I was getting on those 500 other manuscripts that will join mine in the next contest. I felt a lot better about those fees, suddenly.

In terms of contests, there are no guarantees. But at least I know I've eliminated about 100 reasons for a screener to toss my pages aside.


  1. Contest or not, it seems to me (a practicing poet), you would ALWAYS want your ms to be its best, typo-free, strongest choices and order of poems, etc.). There's plenty wrong with contests, but extra effort and getting help make sense anytime. Surely you show your individual poems to trusted friends, colleagues, etc.

  2. Yes, extra effort might get you past the pack in a contest, or with a publisher. I have found that friends, colleagues, and other poets are helpful in offering ideas, but do not have the time and often not the expertise to go over a ms. at the level of detail that really makes the difference. When I hired an editor who does it for a living, the difference was absolutely clear. I won't rely just on poet friends anymore to fine-tune.

  3. there is a lot of truth to this. the market is so competitive. you have to do everything you can to make yourself stand out :)

  4. Hi Rachel. This is an absolute. My publisher (No Tell Books) uses an outside editor for her writers. The longer we look at our own ms the less we are able to see it. At least that has been my experience.