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5 Steps for Developing a Poetry Manuscript

So, you’ve written and published individual poems—now, you’re ready for the next step. Putting together a poetry manuscript, or a potential collection, can help you look for connections in your work. It can also empower you to reach long-term poetry goals, like getting a book deal or getting into grad school. Here are a few suggestions for transforming that pile of poems into a cohesive, powerful collection.


1. Search for similarities—themes, language, forms, etc.

When putting poems together in a collection, you’ll want to make sure they have a connecting thread—a trait that shows the reader they all belong in the same book. Often, this device is thematic. For instance, poems might explore a pop culture phenomenon, a relationship, or an iconic event in history. Other times, the connecting theme is larger: Poets may write about many different interactions or moments that reveal a similar idea.

Words—the very building blocks of poetry—can also be an organizational tactic for the manuscript. Do you find yourself reiterating and reinterpreting similar language, or stretching a metaphor’s significance across many poems? You might have the makings of a strong collection.

Though there are an infinite amount of ways to weave together your poems, another common one is form. Do you have an affinity for the sonnet, the villanelle, the erasure, or another poetic form? Consider arranging multiple takes on the same form into a collection.


2. Create an arc, journey, or storytelling device.

Where does your collection start? Though poetry isn’t as time-oriented and plot-heavy as fiction, many collections still possess a narrative element. Are you meeting the reader at the beginning, the middle, or the end? Will your poems proceed in a linear order, or will arranging them in an unexpected way add meaning to the manuscript? Do you want your collection to have clear, marked sections, or do you want the poems to bleed into each other?


3. Experiment with different orders.

Try, fail, then try again. This approach can be linked to many aspects of poetry, from revision to publishing, but also applies to the manuscript process. Do you have a sense of which poem should open the collection? Place it at the beginning, then come back to it in a few days. You might have your instincts validated, or be compelled to go in a different direction. Ultimately, no order is final until the collection is complete—so take your time and embrace poetry as play.


4. Seek fresh perspectives on the project.

If you’re not already part of a writing workshop, now would be the perfect time to seek one out. Alternatively, you can select a few individual beta readers—people who will read your collection and provide clear, honest feedback. Seeing the collection through others’ eyes is crucial to understanding how it will resonate with readers. 

It’s equally important to keep your own perspective fresh. Regularly step away from your manuscript for a few days in order to return to it with unique insights and newfound clarity. 


5. Consider relevant presses and contests.

Many poets get collections published through winning contests for chapbook-length or book-length manuscripts. Familiarize yourself with the Poets & Writers database, one of the most comprehensive writing contest listings. In addition, many presses and publishers accept manuscript submissions. Evaluate whether your work would be a good fit based on several factors: Who else have they published? Do they have a particular focus, like avant-garde poetry, an emphasis on formal constraints, or poetry that incorporates themes of social justice? Always ensure that you would be proud to be published by and associated with the presses you’re considering. 


We can’t wait to read your book! In the meantime, to garner inspiration from successful collections, check out some of our past recommendations.