Poetry writing workshops

A series of three writing workshops to generate (and revise!) material for poems you might consider submitting for our 2017 Women’s Poetry Competition.


Click below to work your way through the series…

Your terrible first draft

Those who trust in the integrity of the first draft, stop reading now. Or prepare to have your beliefs severely challenged. There is no such thing as the sacrosanct first draft, which must under no circumstances be changed, for fear of losing something precious and irrecoverable. Writing is a process, and during that process any number of decisions, conscious or otherwise, are made before a single word is written. There’s no mystery about this. Your initial choices may be instinctive, but they are washed through filters of arrogance, influence, self-censorship, experience, fear, understanding, partiality… The list goes on.

Nothing we write is ‘pure’. So let’s disabuse ourselves of that myth and get on with the difficult task of writing. Which means, essentially, rewriting.

Two methods of drafting

There are two basic methods of writing a (terrible) first draft. First, there’s John Braine’s famous white-hot draft approach – or ‘mindspill’, as a young writing student put it during a recent workshop. Forget about punctuation and making sense, and just spill yourself onto the page. Remember: no one else need ever see the result.

Then there’s the slow-mo highly critical rewrite-on-the-go approach, where each word or line is weighed and worried at before the next can be put down. This takes more time than the white-hot approach, but at least your end result should be more polished.

The point is that they are both almost certainly still (terrible) drafts, and still nowhere near ready for submission or publication.

Mindspill and landfill

Whichever drafting method you use, be prepared to adapt it partway through the drafting process. Sometimes a too-fast draft drifts into gibberish: mindspill becomes landfill. Here you need to slow down a bit. Go back and pick out a few lines that play on your imagination and develop them instead. Stay vigilant for unexpected changes in theme or diction; there may be more than one poem in the mix.

Bloodaxe poet Helen Ivory says this about first drafts: ‘I will write snips of things and then arrange them around the screen/notebook in a collage-making way till I find some kind of narrative or thread’.

Rescuing abandoned drafts

Have you ever abandoned a difficult first draft that was going nowhere? One way to retrieve enthusiasm is to copy the original draft into a new file, or write it out again on a fresh piece of paper – and then splurge. Throw down anything you can: phrases, odd words, images that spring to mind, snatches of dialogue, real stream-of-consciousness material. At this stage, it doesn’t need to make sense. A brand-new perspective is your goal.

Getting physical

Don’t rely too much on the screen or tracking changes when revising. Use hard copies (aka paper) where possible. Be messy. Scribble in the margins, circle key phrases, link sections with arrows.

Don’t let uncertainty take hold of you during this process. If this draft isn’t working, what will it matter what you do to it? Remember that you can always return to your original draft if the compass starts spinning too wildly.


Devised for Mslexia by Jane Holland

Your (somewhat) better second draft

Once you leave the first draft stage behind, you should be prepared to experiment. This is not merely a question of what to revise, but how. The redrafting process is not about removing extraneous commas or rejigging awkward lines. It demands that we lose our inhibitions as writers.

Our natural instinct is to hold fast to our original vision, feeling it must hold the key to the universe. Yet all redrafts can spring from the same well of originality if approached with enough vision and creative gusto. Dare to do the thing that frightens you: rewrite in an entirely new way. But how to loosen your death-grip on each manuscript? Try any (better still, all) of these ideas to liberate the poem and force you to read it in a new way.


Gain a fresh perspective

American poet and creative writing tutor Annie Finch says, ‘My favourite time to revise is when I haven’t seen a poem in years or when it is defamiliarised in some other way – put into a manuscript, printed in a magazine, or when I’ve just finished performing it at a reading’.

Identifying yourself with your poem is the fastest way to kill the instinct to redraft. So try to separate yourself from your poem. Here are some tricks to try:

  • Pretend someone else wrote it – give it a new title and put another poet’s name after it
  • Post it to yourself – print it out and send it by second-class post (don’t cheat by rereading it in the meantime), then take it out and read it with new, critical eyes.

In either case try to treat it as someone else’s poem, with someone else’s mistakes. Note what works, what doesn’t.

Consider white space, line-breaks, order of appearance, the overall feel of your work. Where can improvements be made? Get out your red pen and scribble all over it.


Listen for a voice

Think about the voice you are using in the poem. Is it written from a particular persona’s point of view? Are the tone, syntax and vocabulary consistent with that persona? Do they ring true?

  • Play with recasting it from a different point of view – a child’s rather than a mother’s, for example.
  • If you know another language, try translating the poem. See where words will not translate exactly and use that as a rewriting tool – should the original change there too? Are some parts facile, underworked, too easy to translate?
  • Sophie Mayer, poet and Commissioning Editor for Chroma, suggests this ruse for loosening the sticking power of a first draft: ‘Feed work through Google Translation or Babelfish (sometimes multiple times) and rewrite from the new meanings that arise’.


Explore a new ending

If your first draft seems to tail off in an unsatisfying and inconclusive way, try continuing in automatic writing. Don’t stop to consider what you’re writing, just free your mind and see what happens. Take dictation from your inner poet!


Experiment with form

  • If the form you’ve used seems clunky – with too obvious end-rhymes, perhaps, or a heavily repetitive metre – try to free it up by rewriting it completely as a piece of prose, complete with proper sentences and punctuation, then (without looking back at the original) turn it into a new poem.
  • Instead of prose, you might try rewriting your poem in a classic poetic form. Could your free verse become a sonnet? Your sonnet an ode?
  • Or consider incorporating an element if concrete poetry into your draft. If your poem is about an object – say, an umbrella – can you suggest its visual form with the shape of the poem on the page?


Spot a sequence

Sometimes there is simply too much material in one poem, so that it spills naturally over into new versions of the same idea or voice. This is how an organic sequence begins. Allow it to spiral out from the original spark into a series of connected poems. They may be linked very tightly or by a single common thread. But the sequence is one of the most fruitful ways of writing, so run with it and see where those new poems lead you.

Redrafting is about learning to be more inventive, trusting your instincts. Become a toddler again and don’t worry about making a mess – just play! You can always return to your original draft if the compass starts spinning too wildly.


Devised for Mslexia by Jane Holland

Spin offs from your previous draft 

It’as a bit like genetics. When beginning to redraft, think of your first draft as the original ancestor or gene-bearer, and each new draft as a member of the same family: an individual in its own right, but sharing at least part of the gene pool of that first draft. This approach helps those who find extreme redrafts too much of a wrench, fearing that their original inspiration may be lost.

If you treat that original spark of inspiration as a genetic code, and all subsequent drafts as sharing that code, it may encourage bolder redrafting. Though sometimes it’s importsnt to uncover what is different rather than what is similar between subsequent drafts, and not be afraid to nuture a completely fresh mutation.


Building a family tree

To build a strong family tree, you first need to produce a powerful alternative draft to your first. You can build a family tree from one parent alone, but two provide a more dynamic mix. Stay physically in touch with this process by printing out your various drafts, then placing your first draft and your strong alternative draft alongside each other. Then rewrite using elements of both these drafts.

The result is a ‘child’ of these two parent-drafts. You can then produce further drafts from this ‘child’, or more children from the parent-drafts direct. Set these alongside or below each other accordingly to start constructing a family tree.


Bringing in new blood

As everyone knows, too much inbreeding can result in serious genetic disorders. Accordingly, in search of new blood, you might want to incorporate elements of other writings in your work – discarded lines from your own poetry or fiction, something ‘found’ from a shopping list or technical manual, perhaps even some oddity like a fragment of another language or code.

Leave such ‘grafted’ poems to bed in, then come back and consider the result with new eyes. You may be surprised how well some disparate elements fit together. Editor of Poetry Wales, Zoe Skoulding says that ‘I sometimes think of redrafting as a kind of translation, which works better if I’ve left a poem long enough that I’ve forgotten some of the circumstances of writing it. But translating doesn’t have to mean taming – it might mean looking for what makes it feel more foreign.’


Mix and match

At some point a wholly new idea may emerge in your redrafts, creating a draft strong enough to stand as a completely new bloodline. This can be ‘married’ to a ‘child’, or to one or both of the parent-drafts, to produce a new branch of the family tree altogether.

Poet and Editor of (now closed) poetry magazine Seam, Anne Berkeley advises ‘Keep drafts if you can bear it. You can cut out whole stanzas but put them back next year if you prefer, even in a different order. That’s one advantage poetry has over sculpture: you can see how it looks without arms, and then change your mind. Sometimes, after dozens of drafts, I go back to the first and find a deleted line or a word that helps get me back on track.’

Alternatively, mixing it up with a little incest may be the most profitable way forward. You can then combine elements of two or more descendants to produce a closer match with the parent-drafts, but without the weaknesses you may have been trying to eradicate in the redrafting process.

Remember: you can always return to your original draft if the offspring don’t satisfy you.


Devised for Mslexia by Jane Holland

'I really love @Mslexia's little ms. It's so...perky'