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How To Put Together a Poetry Manuscript for Publication

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You’ve written a number of poems, sent them out to poetry journals or read them in public, and some of your poems have been published in print magazines or anthologies, or in online journals. Now it’s time to put together a book manuscript you can submit to publishers or publication contests.
Difficulty: Hard
Time Required: An hour or two a day over a week, a month or even a year

Here's How:

  1. Begin by typing (or printing from your computer files) all the poems you want to consider putting into your book, one to a page (unless of course, the poem is longer than a single page). This is a chance to make any small revisions you want to make to individual poems, so that you can go ahead and concentrate on the shape of the book as a whole.
  2. To get started, decide how big a book you want to create—20 to 30 pages for a typical chapbook, 50 or more for a full-length collection. You may well change your mind about this when you are actually selecting and ordering the poems, but this will give you a starting point.
  3. With the length of your book in mind, sift through all the pages you have typed or printed up, and put the poems into piles that you feel belong together in some way—a series of poems on related themes, or a group of poems written using a particular form, or a chronological sequence of poems written in the voice of a single character.
  4. Let your piles sit at least overnight without thinking about them. Then pick up each pile and read through the poems, trying to see them as a reader and not as their author. If you know your poems well and find your eyes skipping ahead, read them out loud to yourself to make sure you take the time to listen to them.
  5. When you’ve read through a stack of poems, pull out any poems that no longer seem to fit in that particular pile, and put the poems you want to keep together in the order you want your readers to experience them. You may find yourself doing lots of reshuffling over time, moving poems from one stack into another, melding whole groups of poems together by combining stacks, or discovering new groupings that need to be separate and on their own. Don’t worry about it. You will likely come across new ideas for books or chapbooks, and also change your mind about decisions you’ve made earlier in the process a number of times before the poems settle into the shape of a book or chapbook.
  6. After you’ve pared down and reordered each pile of poems, let them sit again at least overnight. You can use this time to mull over your reading, listening for the poems that stand out in each stack and how they sound together. Pay attention to other poems that may have popped into your mind when you were reading a certain stack, to see if you should add them to the stack, or replace similar poems you’ve already chosen with the ones that now come to mind.
  7. Think again about the length of book you want to create. You may decide that one stack of related poems would make a good short chapbook. Or you may have a really large pile of poems that will all go together into a long collection. Or you may want to combine several of your piles as sections within a full-length book.
  8. If you feel your sifting and shuffling among the piles in endless and the poems are not settling into the shape of a book, try actually making them into a book that you can live with and leaf through. Make multiple copies of the poems and staple or tape them together, or punch holes in the pages and put them into a three-ring notebook, or use your computer to print them out in book format (most word processing programs will do this fairly easily). Don’t think too much about typography or design—at this point, you want simply to put the poems in order with facing left and right pages so that you can read through the book and see how they interact in that order.
  9. After you’ve decided on the length and general shape of your book manuscript, choose a title for your book. A title may have suggested itself during your sifting and ordering of the poems, or you may want to read through them again to find one—perhaps the title of a central poem, or a phrase taken from one of the poems, or something completely different.
  10. Be sure you carefully proofread your entire manuscript from beginning to end after you’ve put it in order. If you’ve spent a lot of time with the book, you may be tempted to give it only a cursory read-through. In this case you need to set it aside for a few days or weeks, so that when you come back to it you can pay close attention to each poem, each title, each line, each punctuation mark. You will likely find yourself making additional revisions to the poems at this point—don’t hold back, as this final reading may be a last chance to make changes before you send the book out into the world.
  11. Proofreading your own work is difficult—ask a friend, or two, to proofread the manuscript for you, and go through all their notes carefully. Fresh eyes will likely spot some errors that slid right by your eyes, but do not feel that you must accept every editorial change they may suggest. When in doubt about punctuation or line breaks, read the poem aloud.
  12. Now it’s time to seek appropriate venues for submission. Use our list of poetry publishers or our links to poetry contests to identify places you want to submit your manuscript. It’s important to read the poetry books they’ve published or the previous winners of their competitions in order to decide if you want them to publish your work.
  13. After you have selected a publisher or a contest, make sure to reread their guidelines and follow them exactly. Print a fresh copy of your manuscript in the format requested, be sure to use the submission form if there is one, and enclose the reading fee if there is one.
  14. Try to let go of your manuscript after you’ve mailed it—it may take a long time for you to get a response, and obsessing over one manuscript submission will only set you up for disappointment. It never hurts, however, to keep thinking about the shape and order and title of your book, and to submit it to other contests and publishers in the meantime (so long as the people you’ve sent it to accept simultaneous submissions).

Tips:

  1. If you’re preparing an email or online submission, you may still want to print up the poems you’re considering—shuffling paper pages is easier than editing a computer file.
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