Revision Guide: Prose vs Poetry

Welp, it’s been a minute since I’ve done any writing-related posts here on the blog… so, what better day to get back into writing discussions than today?

My fall classes finally finished up last week, and I had taken a poetry writing course that I actually, believe it or not, loved. And I may or may not share some of the poems I actually wrote in this class here soon… or later… but, for now, I want to give y’all some advice on how to revise your own poems, based on what I learned from that class, along with even more advice on how to revise prose… you know, everything but poetry, like the short stories, long stories, medium-length stories… Because, really, they are similar in some ways, but some ways completely different.

So, first…

Prose Revisions

Again, when I talk about prose, in this context, at least, I’m pretty much talking about all fiction, and, well, non-fiction, too, I suppose, minus poetry. Think short stories, flash fiction, novels, the works. All works minus poems, you know.

When we revise stories like these, we mainly have to focus on the story as a whole. For example, in a novel, we may think of the whole plot line at once. However, we also need to, in most cases, break stories down into smaller chunks so we can work on things one step at a time, for example, one chapter at a time or, in a shorter piece, one paragraph at a time.

Think of how the story flows from one piece to the next; can you tell the whole piece is about a teenage girl trying to cover up the murder of her best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin’s step-sister right from the beginning, or fairly close to the beginning? Does each chapter after that follow the steps that teen girl takes in an order that makes sense, or does she start out with burying the body in a soybean field, but then later the police find the remains in her basement and you completely forgot to mention that she unburied it later to do experiments on it for a school project?

There can be a lot of layers to a prose piece, too, especially if it’s a long one. So, needless to say, prose revisions can get pretty complicated to keep track of. If you wanna stay super-duper organized, like me, you could benefit from keeping notebooks or extra word documents for your notes—think plot maps, character traits, or anything else that you would find on a writing guide printable off of Pinterest.

Bottom line for prose–focus on the big picture first and foremost. After that, you can go back and do the nit-picky editing with sentence structure, word choice and all that crap. When you revise prose, though, you wanna make the biggest changes first, perhaps in paragraphs or pages at a time. Chapter by chapter or scene by scene, make sure your story includes the parts you want and how you want them.

Poetry Revisions

One thing I’ve learned to love about poetry is its revision process. Not that it’s necessarily easier than revising prose, but it often feels much simpler.

When we revise prose, we have to look at large chunks at a time–the big picture or the story as a whole. But, in poetry, we get the privilege of looking at much smaller chunks one at a time. You may still incorporate a storyline of that teenage girl covering up the murder of her best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin’s step-sister, but since you chose the form of a poem instead of a novel to tell that story, your focus is now more on how you tell that story rather than what the story actually entails.

For the most part, because there’s always exceptions, poems have the goal of telling the most substance in the least amount of space. That’s why poets are notoriously known for using and even coming up with uncommon and outlandish dictionary words; they have to figure out what single word in their language conveys the most substance at once. So, in revising poetry, it’s best to look at single words and lines one by one.

Similar to prose, we take things one step at a time in revising our poems, but we do it on a more microscopic level–a word as a step, not a whole page. Still think of how these words and lines of your poem lend toward a larger picture, but focus on the how. Is murder the right word to use, or does assassination, slaughter, or slaying pack more punch?


These two revision processes are similar; we gotta take things one step at a time in either case. However, we also gotta focus on the steps in a different way depending on the form we take… prose or poetry!

This guide may not be perfect by any means, but I gave it a good try. Let me know if you plan to take my advice, or if you have something else to add!

–Kari

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