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How to Write a Chapbook of Poetry: Tips From a Professional Author

Introduction

Congratulations! You’ve set the goal of writing a poetry chapbook. This is a super exciting endeavour which could totally change the course of your career.

If you’re anything like me, the process can seem intimidating. I know that when I set out to write my first chapbook, I felt pretty lost. I wasn’t really sure where to start, so I did some research online.

Personally, I found this PDF of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “Why Publishing a Chapbook Makes Sense” extremely useful. It breaks down the basics of what a chapbook is, and why/how you can write one.

And, by consulting this online info, I was able to put together my first manuscript. After assembling the poems, I spent months editing them. Once I was finished, I submitted it to several small presses, and it was picked up by my now-publisher—Grey Borders Books.

So let’s look at my personal tips for writing a chapbook:

1. First things first: get into the habit of regularly writing new poetry

Obviously, you can’t assemble a manuscript without individual poems. So you’ll need to get into the rhythm of creating new work.

The creative process is different for everyone, but here are some potential motivators:

  • Set aside a designated amount of time each day to write new poetry (even if the poems aren’t very good!). 
  • Take a poetry writing course at your local college or library. (This is my personal favourite! While I was in university, I took two different creative writing workshop courses, and in both classes, I ended up writing entire manuscripts.)
  • Go to an open mic night for poets, and share new work. The act of attending these events will give you the incentive to write.


Once you feel like you have a solid chunk of poems to work with, then you can start trying to assemble them into a cohesive publication. This could take months or even years, depending on how much time you want to take.

2. Sort through your poems and ask yourself these important questions.

Upon reading over your work, ask:

  • Are there any central themes that come up over and over again in my poetry? What are they? (For example, when I looked over my own work, I found that many of my poems centred around experiences of mental illness and hospitalization.)
  • Are there any recurring images that come up in my work? What are they?

The basic idea is that, for a chapbook, you want to find a pretty specific theme. 

Since chapbooks are generally quite short (approx. 15-35 poems long), you don’t really have the liberty of jumping around from random topic to random topic. (I mean, you technically could do that, but it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying to read.)

In full-length manuscripts, you generally have more freedom to play around with different themes and images. But chapbooks tend to be a bit less forgiving, in that sense.

Once you’ve recognized a few central themes and images, pick out some poems that are all connected to those same basic concepts. This won’t be your final list—just collect them.

You could put them all in a single Word doc, or make a folder with various documents—whatever organization system is easiest for you. I’d say a group of at least 20-40 poems would be a good place to start.

3. Go through your group of poems, and get a bit more selective.

Now that you have some poems to choose from, go through them and see which ones are the strongest. Have any of these poems been previously published or won awards? If so, start there.

Narrow the group of poems down to your best work. This might end up being 15 poems, or it could be much longer. Just see what feels best.

Once you have narrowed down which poems you’ll include, start playing around with the order. This will be very time-consuming. Experiment with different poems coming first or last. 

If you want to get creative, print out all of the poems, and manually move the pieces of paper around on a floor or large table. Try out different placements.

Once you’ve got a decent draft, move on to copyediting.

4. Edit, edit, and then edit some more.

I’m a bit partial to thorough copyediting, because I also work as a professional editor. And when I was a new writer, I spent 7 months personally revising my poetry manuscript. By the time I submitted it to my now-editor, he didn’t need to change a thing; the book went straight to printing.

The point is that you should edit your work so thoroughly that it will impress any editor who reads it over. When you’re sending out your manuscript, you want the collection to be as polished as possible, so that it gets picked up by a publisher.

Spend at least a few weeks (possibly even months) reading over your poems. Edit them for clarity and correctness. Have some friends read them over. Ask a creative writing teacher/mentor for their thoughts. Get as much feedback as possible—and then decide which advice to implement.

By the end of it, you should have a collection of cohesive, effective poems. 

5. Submit it to publishers. (Or self-publish.)

The next step is to research some small presses in your area (big publishers don’t usually put out chapbooks). If you’re Canadian, Kitty Lewis has compiled a great list here

Then, submit your manuscript—either by mail or online (depending on the guidelines). Send it to several presses in order to keep your options open. And hopefully, all that hard work will pay off!

If you’re planning on self-publishing, this is the point where you’d start printing your chapbook (or hiring an outside editor to copy-edit it for you). 

Conclusion

Writing a chapbook is a great option for new writers. It can help you establish yourself as a published author and seriously advance your career. I hope you found these tips helpful!

By Mercedes Killeen

Mercedes Killeen is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor. She specializes in the creation of engaging digital content, such as blog posts, articles, and ebooks. Currently accepting new clients.

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