How to Find a Poetry Editor in 5 Essential Steps
Wordsworth once wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” The role of the poet, then, is to collect those emotions. But as museum aficionados will know, even the finest collections require a curator — and that’s where a poetry editor comes into play.
Some poets might cringe at the idea of getting an editor. Writing poetry is a deeply personal exercise, after all, and one with little use for typical writing rules. So why bother involving a poetry editor at all?
Because they know how to make your work affecting and accessible to readers — and can even help you publish your poetry and submit to literary magazines, if you wish! Read on to find out more about what poetry editors do, why you might need one, and how to find the perfect editor for you.
What does a poetry editor do?
A poetry editor refines artistic voice, message, and structure in order to make your poetry as effective as possible. They’ll consult with you on word choice, line and stanza length, mood/tone, clarity of message, and more to ensure your poems achieve what you want them to achieve.
If you’re putting together a poetry collection, an editor can also weigh in on the order and formatting of your poems. If you already have a vision for your body of work, they’ll carry it out. And if not, they’ll help you develop it in the first place! (Though when it comes to how your poems look in print, you’ll want to invest in a book layout designer who can do them justice.)
What a poetry editor won’t do is turn your work into a carbon copy of theirs. After all, prose editors don’t rewrite books in their own literary style, and neither will poetry editors — good editors serve their clients, not the reverse. So don’t worry about the integrity of your poetic vision! Any decent editor will know that their job is to enhance it, not replace it.
Of course, if you’re hoping to work with a decent poetry editor, you’ll first need to seek them out. Fortunately, that’s what this next section is about.
How to find a poetry editor in 5 steps
1. Define your poetry goals
Before asking someone for help with your poetry, know what you want that poetry to accomplish. For some poets, the raison d'etre for each stanza is crystal-clear from the moment their pen touches paper (so to speak). For others, a poem is a raw emotional response that doesn’t necessarily serve a purpose other than personal catharsis… but if you want your poetry to be read and enjoyed by other people, you need to find ways for it to serve them as well.
If you’re not sure what you want your work to accomplish, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the emotional source of the poem?
- What effect do I want to have on people as they’re reading, and what should they ultimately take away?
- How do my creative choices in each poem (word choice, structure, etc.) contribute to readers’ experience? Where might I be able to improve?
Basically, you need a solid sense of what your poetry is trying to say, how you want to say it, and where an editor can help. These goals should be detailed and well-organized — even if your poetry isn’t — before you start looking for editors. Otherwise, you won’t know what to look for, and might accidentally choose someone who’s incompatible with your vision.
Make a few notes on the questions above, at the very least. For bonus points, sort out your priorities: do you feel more strongly about punching readers with that raw emotion, or dazzling them with rhetoric — and why you do feel that way? Such goals are far from mutually exclusive, but knowing which is more important to you will distinctly shape the way you and your editor approach this process.
2. Establish timeline and budget
Now for practical considerations: how much time and money you’d like to put toward editing. Again, as with your poetry goals, it’s vital to have a strong sense of these so you can find an editor who’s 100% compatible!
For those hoping to publish their work soon, you may be planning on either a) self-publishing, or b) submitting your work to agents/publishers. The good news is that there’s no strict deadline for either of these paths, so it’s really a matter of what you want — are you happy to linger over edits for a while, or are you eager to get your work out there ASAP? If the latter, make sure to ask about editors’ availability when you contact them.
Your budget may be less flexible than your timeline, but here we have even more good news: it costs a lot less to edit a poetry book than it does to edit a “regular” book. Poetry collections are, by nature, quite short — 5,000-10,000 words at most, or even less if you’re publishing a slim poetry “chapbook.” Compared to the 50,000+ words of a novel or nonfiction book, poetry books are an editing bargain!
So how much does a poetry editor actually cost?
Most poets can expect to pay $500-$800 to get a 5,000-word poetry collection edited. However, cost can vary quite a bit depending on the number and length of the poems in question, as well as how quick the turnaround needs to be. Naturally, the editor's experience and skill set comes into play as well.
If you’re hoping to save, there’s plenty you can do! For one thing, see what you can work on yourself before reaching out to editors. This is another reason it’s useful to identify your poetry goals first, because anything you can fix independently will save you time and money down the line.
For another thing, remember that experience is not synonymous with talent. A fairly green editor can still do a marvelous job with your work, and will charge less than other editors who’ve been around the block. However, it may take much longer to sift out these diamonds in the rough than to simply hire an experienced editor. If time is a factor, you should hit the ground running with veteran professionals — just make sure you’re upfront about your budget.
3. Research poetry editors
Now that you’ve determined your goals, it’s time to start researching in earnest. Other than aligning with your creative, financial, and timeline-related needs, here’s what to look for in a poetry editor:
- A fellow poet. This might sound obvious, but don’t just hire any old copy editor to fix up your work! Poetry is a distinct and delicate art form, and editing it requires a deep understanding of the craft — which means you need a collaborator who writes and (hopefully) publishes poetry themselves.
- A supportive-yet-suggestive contributor. This is the balance you want in a poetry editor: someone who “gets” your voice and doesn’t want to silence it, but also isn’t afraid to make critical suggestions. You can usually tell whether an editor embodies this balance by asking about their past collaborations, or else by requesting a sample edit of your own (more on that in the next step).
- Someone who’s worked on 1-2 books. Yes, we just said experience ≠ talent, but that doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind and pick a total newbie! Instead, look for editors who have worked on at least 1-2 poetry collections, even if those collections were their own. That way you can preview the contents of these books on Amazon (or wherever they’re available) and get a sense of the person’s abilities — which should tell you whether they’d be able to to edit your collection.
- Someone who’s above-board. Again, this might sound obvious, but some poetry editors may try to skimp on contracts because the collaboration is relatively brief. Don’t do this! Every professional exchange of payment for publishing services should involve a contract, and ideally a third party to monitor and enforce that contract.
4. Ask for sample critiques
You’ve carefully applied all of the above criteria to your editor search, keeping in mind your own unique requirements, and you’ve narrowed it down to a handful of qualified editors. But how do you know which one to choose from there?
By far the best way to figure out if an editor will “click” with you is to request a sample edit. This should be just a poem or two, no more than a couple hundred words (remember, editors are busy people!). Give a few details about your poetry goals and where you’d like to improve, but other than that, leave it up to the editor. The edits they return should clearly indicate whether they’re a good fit for your project.
Of course, every poet must decide for themselves what constitutes a “good fit.” A fantastic editor of structured verse might be a terrible editor for free verse, and vice-versa (wink). But regardless of the poetry you write, here are a few gold stars and red flags (if you will) to look out for in a sample edit.
⭐ Notes that address your specific goals and problem spots.
⭐ Questions to help you clarify and expand on certain elements.
⭐ Innovative ideas about what else you might add (without compromising your style).
🚩 Inexpert comments, e.g. not understanding what a metaphor is.
🚩 A complete rewrite of your poem such that it becomes unrecognizable.
🚩 No feedback at all — a doormat editor won’t be able to help you!
When in doubt, you can identify the quality of a sample edit by answering one simple question: is it genuinely helpful? Not just flattering, and certainly not an attempt to make your poems sound like someone else’s, but a thorough, constructive piece of feedback that will help you meet your goals (even if it’s going to take a lot of work). When you find the poetry editor who provides this sample, you’ll know you've found “the one.”
And though you might think your job here is done, there’s one last step that’s imperative to the success of your collaboration…
5. Cultivate a partnership
Finding a poetry editor is only half the battle. Working with a poetry editor requires just as much effort — though if you’ve chosen a good collaborator, it should be a lot more enjoyable! Indeed, the key to editing together is to think of your editor not as your lackey or your critic, but as your partner in poetic fulfillment.
Here are a few tips to help you cultivate that kind of relationship:
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Whether it’s about something as mundane as line length or as significant as the theme of your entire collection, let your editor know what you think. They may disagree, but at least you’ll be on the same page, and you can come to a nuanced, respectful conclusion together.
- Trust their expertise. That said, in situations where you clash, you should usually defer to your editor. After all, isn’t their objectivity and expertise the whole reason you hired them? Yes, if you have strong feelings about something, you should definitely bring it up — but most of the time, they know what they’re doing. On a related note…
- Take a holistic view. Editors are trained to do this — especially poetry editors, who understand that the overall “vibe” of a collection is crucial. So if your editor suggests something like moving your favorite poem from the start to the middle of your chapbook, recognize it’s likely in service of this. Basically, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees!
A great poetry editor will enhance not only each poem you write, but the collection you’re compiling — and in doing so, potentially change the trajectory of your career. This is why it’s so important to find the right collaborator: someone you can trust with your work, your emotions, and ultimately your life path.
So start looking for that dream editor today — because, as with great poems, one of them might just have a profound and life-changing impact.