Some Assembly Required: Putting Together Your First Poetry Manuscript

(This article was written for Read Write Poem.)

This is it. You’ve spent years polishing your poems. You’ve shared them in workshops and at readings, even published a handful of your best work in a few journals. Now it’s time to tame those wild poems for your first manuscript. What now?

Assembling a full-length manuscript can be both challenging and exhilarating. It’s the culmination of months and years of hard work. And while the process may feel as if you’re attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the end result of your poetic “sweat equity.”

Start by organizing your poems by topics or related themes. Do your poems speak to you in a certain way? Do they work chronologically or through a persona’s voice? You should notice the emergence of a narrative arc, or a natural fit between and throughout the collection. Consider putting your strongest poems in the beginning and end of your collection, because it helps to frame the rest of the book, giving you a solid foundation to build upon.

For my first collection, I spent hours laying out poems on my office floor. I needed to do this visual exercise so I could test the strength of each poem. I wanted to make sure that the first poem, and every one that followed, was able to stand on its own. I spent a good amount of time grouping strong poems in sections, removing the weak ones, and filling in the holes.

The distance from the end of one poem to the start of the next works only to enhance the tone. You’ll find your poems working together, taking advantage of momentum and seizing on the expectation. As a reader, I enjoy exploring the evolution and range of a poet through the choices he or she makes. But too much of a particular form or tone can spoil even the best collections. You want your manuscript to bob and weave—to feel organic yet structured at the same time.

I am of the school that in a poetry collection, less is more. I recommend leaving out your weaker poems. Most poetry manuscripts average between 40-72 pages, so you want the reader to experience the best representation of who you are as a writer. This is survival of the fittest, or Thunderdome—only include the poems you feel are rock-solid. In the long run, you’re much better off with a small collection of well-rounded gems than one filled with unfinished lumps of coal.

After the hand-wringing, the midnight organizing, and the Zen-like approach you’ve now adopted to get you through the process, carefully vet your work. A good way of doing that is reading your newly arranged poems aloud, from beginning to end. Pay attention to the repetitions and the silences. Don’t be afraid to move pieces around. Do you still hear that music? And this goes without saying, but carefully proof your collection for grammar and punctuation errors. Nothing is more off-putting to a publisher than good work riddled with careless mistakes.

One thing I did do was send my first manuscript to a broad group of poets and trusted friends. The edits I received were tremendous, and while I didn't take them all, the different perspectives helped to shape the final manuscript.

Lastly, take your time. You have been living with these poems for years, and, in some cases, decades! There’s no rush, except maybe in your own mind, to publish your work. Be faithful to the poems and don’t send out anything that’s not ready for publication. When in doubt, trust your gut.

Believe it or not, this process is F-U-N! Sure, it could cause the onset of gray hair, but it will show you where you are as a poet. Don’t let the process intimidate you. Once your first collection is finished, you can say goodbye to those old poems and start something new.

Full disclosure: my first book, Underlife, will be published in October 2009 by CavanKerry Press. Manuscript #2 is in the works because … well… there’s just a long gestation period before manuscripts go to press. Yet, being in the position to create a second manuscript is a dream come true—a position I never thought I would be in when I was creating my first.


Now, I am by no means an expert in assembling a manuscript. So if you are in the process of putting together your first or your 10th collection, give us your insights. Any advice on how to organize a poetry manuscript? Leave a comment here or at RWP.


Collin Kelley said…
Thanks for this. My new full-length collection has been re-ordered no less than 20 time over the last year. I've never had this much trouble -- or been this picky -- about the sequence and title.
January said…
Thanks Collin. It is tough to figure out just the right order for our poems, maybe because we're so close to them.

And don't get me started on titles!
Ambiguitylotus said…

Thank you for this post. I've been a prolific poet for years, many of my friends (both online and real life) have been telling me to get my poems published. However, I'm kind of intimidated about the entire process as the first thing I need to do is to actually put together a set of poems. I just don't know where to start, but this post is really helpful, so I kindly thank you. I already have a theme in mind. However, it's a matter of finding the time to put it together and maybe write a few new ones to add to the collection!

I'll probably be back here in the near future to get more tips from you! I hope you keep giving us more tips on Read Write Poem. :)
January said…
If you're intimidated, then don't think of it as putting together a manuscript. Think of it as an opportunity to gather and revise your work. That's all. Then see if you're ready to take the next step by looking for themes, grouping poems together by subject matter.

Time? I have a husband, two young kids, and a full time job. I have no time (*sigh*). So I give up sleep and work late at night on my poetry and articles. Not a bad tradeoff.

If you make this a priority, they you will find the time and energy to get it done.

Thanks for coming by A.L.!
Maya Ganesan said…
Oh, I wish I'd read this before :)

What I did is, I went through and decided how many sections I was going to have, first. Then, I looked through my entire manuscript to see what similarities I could find within large groups of the poems.

I finally separated my poems based on their focus - I separated them into "nature," "part-nature, part-city," and "city/human life". (That's pretty general, but it's the essence.)

My whole manuscript is centered around knowing, and not knowing, and I found that tie after I'd ordered all my poems.

So I suppose you can find a thread, connecting all your poems, once you've got an order in your head.

Titles - I compiled a list of possibilities, and slowly thought through each one. I asked people what they'd choose. I finally plucked off several till I had merely two, and then I asked around a little more, analyzed both of them, and decided on one.

You don't want to know the long, difficult road I've taken to find a cover.

You can find the final result of all that hard work and back-and-forth-ing over at my blog. I've posted up the cover for my book there.

Hope your book is successful! (And I guessed CavanKerry Press when I saw "CKP" in a post a while ago.)

word verification: devomic
Maya Ganesan said…
Oh, and thank you for posting this!
Great essay!

I think putting together a chapbook helps. It's easier to think about the theme and the way that poems work together when one works on a chapbook sized scale first. And then, when putting together a book length manuscript, it doesn't seem so scary, just like a longer process.

Have you read "Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems"? It's a good resource, although the main thing I learned from reading it is that there are many different ways to put together a book length manuscript.
Liz said…
Hi January, thanks for this, I've just put together a manuscript and a chapbook and it was hard-going...I don't think I had the total staying-power or patience to try out different ways so settled maybe a bit too quickly...well, fingers crossed that maybe not, as it's out there now....: )
Nice to meet you...I've added you to my list of blog friends. : )
Anonymous said…
Great insights here. This is a post to bookmark and come back to, one day.
January said…
Thanks RWP! Maybe it's time to get your manuscript in gear ...
January said…
Hi Liz. Congrats on putting together two complete works. Not an easy thing to do but it looks like you have a system that works.

Any tips for those in the process of putting together their poems?
January said…
Kristin, I have not read "Ordering the Storm." Thanks for the tip.

I like what you have to say about chapbooks vs. full-length manuscripts.

Thanks for stopping by!
January said…
Maya, it sounds like you had the concept of how you wanted your poems to appear before you started to organize them. Very cool.

The nice thing about this article is that it leads to finding out how others go about process. All of us have to find what works best.

I'll be sure to come by your blog and read more about your collection.
Odessa said…
hi january,
i've got a looong way to go before i can put together a manuscript but i will certainly bookmark this for future reference. thank you so much!

and oh, you are more than welcome to use the line on my previous blog post in a poem ("you make me want what i cannot have"), in fact i'd be honored. :)
Rethabile said…
Thanks for the advice.
Ambiguitylotus said…
Hi January,

Thank you for your response, and for telling me that one can put together a (chap)book of poems even with a family!

I was wondering--how do you get past the attitude/feeling of "My poems aren't good enough for publication"? I'd like to hear your thoughts about that as that's how I feel most of the time, aside from being intimidated about the process.

Thank you sincerely!

January said…
Hi A~Lotus. This question deserves a more thoughtful answer. So tomorrow I'll post a response and maybe get some feedback from others wondering the same thing.

Thanks for the question. It's a topic I struggle with a lot.
Ambiguitylotus said…
Thank you so much!

Oh, and I just thought of something else. How do you feel/think about self-publishing? I mean, many poets out there are doing that, and I was wondering about that versus small presses--in terms of pros and cons!

Sorry for all of these questions! I'm just exploring the world of publishing in general. :)

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