You’ve written the perfect poem! Now is the time to dash it off to an editor, right? Hold on! Here are ten tips to help you edit your own haiku to make them stronger.
This first tip is the hardest. Let your work sit for a few days. It can be tempting to send your poetry out for publication immediately, but it is best to wait. You will see your poems in a new light when you approach them again.
The second step isn’t much easier. Take words out. Haiku are so short that every word you use must pull its own weight. Is there a simpler way to convey what you are trying to say? When you read the haiku aloud, do you stumble over certain words or omit words entirely? These are good places to start pruning your poem.
Check the length of your haiku. While it is true that contemporary haiku often fall short of the 5 / 7 / 5 syllable pattern that most of us learned in grade school, haiku in English are seldom longer than 17 syllables in length. (As with most things, there are always exceptions!)
“A haiku should be as long as it needs to be, and as short as it can be. Its arrangement should depend upon the needs of the poem, not the needs of the tradition.” – Jim Kacian, in How to Haiku.
When you read over your haiku, look at the overall shape and structure. Is your poem best served by three lines? Would a one line monoku work better? Most haiku written in English tend to follow a short / long / short syllable structure. While this is a safe place to start, don’t feel restricted by this rule of thumb.
Is your poem set in the present tense? As Jim Kacian writes in How to Haiku, “(t)he present is the time of poetic truth, the time of the possibility of sharing, and the time of haiku.” When you are first learning to write haiku, using the present tense is a good rule to follow.
Consider the best use of grammar. Haiku do not usually employ punctuation or capitalization, with the exception of denoting the caesura, or break, in the poem. This break between two parts of a haiku is often marked by an em dash or an ellipsis, but this space does not have to be denoted by punctuation at all. It is the poet’s choice which tool to use. An em dash denotes a harsher break, while an ellipsis implies a gradual fading away.
When you have a good first draft of your poem, read the haiku out loud again. Where do you pause when reading? These are often good locations for line breaks. Flip the lines around. Does line 1 (L1) work better as L3? Sometimes, you can increase the element of surprise in the haiku by changing the line order.
Consider switching up your words for synonyms with richer meanings. Haiku are so brief that it is important to get the most bang for your buck with each word. Words with multiple meanings can add layers of depth by giving the poem different but equally valid interpretations. Greater specificity in your word choices can make your work resonate more deeply with some readers.
Read your poem aloud again. This time, listen for assonance and alliteration. What tone are you aiming for? While haiku don’t tell people what to think or render judgement about a situation, they do often evoke an emotional response in the reader. Does your poem take the reader where you want them to go? For example, “smooth seas at sunset” evokes a softer sense of peaceful waves with all of those s’s than “choppy ocean in the gloaming” with its stormy harsh tones and rolling o’s.
Share your work with other haiku poets and ask for their feedback. It has been said that a haiku is not complete until a reader enters the poem. Finding a critique group where you may share your work can be very rewarding. The Haiku Society of America has regional groups that meet for this purpose. In addition, posting your work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media platforms may be useful. Use the hashtag #haiku so other poets can find your work. Keep in mind that the quality of interaction you have online will vary greatly – please don’t take any criticisms too harshly. Also, note that posting your haiku on social media will render it ineligible for submission at some publications. The Haiku Foundation maintains a thread in the THF Forum entitled Mentoring – Beginner where you can post your work and get feedback from other poets in a safe, supportive space. (You will need to set up a free account in the THF Forum before you see this thread on the board.)
How do you edit your haiku? Do you have a favorite book or guide about editing? Tell us in the comments!
Julie Bloss Kelsey
THF Education Committee
Recommendations for Further Reading:
Jim Kacian’s How to Haiku is a comprehensive overview of how to write haiku in English. A detailed description of punctuation in haiku can be found on pages 78-83.
The Haiku Foundation Digital Library is a free resource. You can read our digital copies of books and chapbooks of haiku, along with essays and commentary about the form.
Tom Painting’s A Holistic Haiku Plan for Junior High School contains a terrific five point plan for revising your haiku.