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New to Haiku: How to Edit Your Haiku

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.

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Thank you. I began my first site with WordPress.com in December 2009. I write my poems in post drafts now. Sometimes a poem is simply given, as I watch the seasons here by Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. And somtimes there are revisions. I may think of a haiku, and then realize a poem is a tanka. And true that journals vary in submission guidelines, and important to read them carefully. The discussion here is interesting. Sometimes I look back at an earlier poem and see how it could be improved. Yet more important for me to keep the voice of the poem – not the older person I am now, who may have learned a little more about craft. I may well edit shorter – just focus the poem a little more. I think the craft of an editor is also an art.

  2. I’ve never really considered haiku before, they never really stood out to me. I thought of one, however, on a whim and Google’d it to see if it was mine.

    I like this website I have found, I think I might stay.

    Through a microscope,
    You see the world we live in,
    Through a telescope.

    Through a telescope,
    You see the world we live in,
    Through a microscope.

  3. Enjoy sharing your work and work-shopping with others in person or via social media but beware of well meaning people ‘helping’ you edit your work. I have seen many haiku made worse in this way! Be grateful for any feedback you get but weigh it carefully, no one else knows exactly what it is you want to express.

    1. Agreed!

      There are too many ‘names’ out there who want your haiku to be edited ‘their’ way. It has to be where you, the author, edit it your way, in such a way that it is comprehensible to a readership and potential journal editor.

      Alan

  4. One tip I have that others may find useful is to keep a running track of, say, 10 poems in a grid/table of 5 or so columns. When you first write a haiku, put it in the left column. Don’t look at it for a while then edit a copy in the next column and compare/think about the changes you made. Do it again by taking words out, changing line order and adjusting structure – until you think you’ve had enough! Look at the grid and see what happened – were you shortening, lengthening, trying to be too clever, trying to be too ‘zen’. Do you think you improved the original or made it worse – but do think about it.
    Then send out the one you think works best for the editor/journal you send it to – not all editors like the same things. If it’s rejected, ask why – some editors will be happy to tell you (others won’t but that’s fine).
    I also look at other writers whose work I admire and try to understand what they are doing (see writers in this discussion). Does that style or level of brevity suit you?
    Finally, always ask yourself WHY you write something. What did you do it for? Capturing a true moment of clarity and sharing it is my aim – even if it’s a humorous senryu. But if you read back what you have written and can’t explain why you would want to share that with someone else, and why they would want to hear it, you probably need to think again.

    1. John, I love the idea of tracking the changes to your haiku in a table with columns. I have mine shoved every which way into Notes on my iPad/iPhone, so much so that I’m causing the app to crash! It is not proving to be an efficient way to track changes or to store poems. I should write a future blog post on how to store your haiku – I’ve tried keeping mine hand-written in a recipe box, but that doesn’t fit the way I work, so I don’t use it. I know some folks keep running tallies in Word, or sort their poems by keyword. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I want to second Roberta’s suggestion to read a lot of haiku, and to add that writing down the ones you especially like and then re-reading them frequently to try to understand what about them you are drawn to can be helpful in setting your own internal haiku editor. As you become more comfortable with writing haiku, you will naturally find your own style.

    Another tip: don’t be afraid to use poetic license and create an alternate reality if it makes for a stronger poem. The poet Richard Hugo said, “You owe reality nothing and the truth about your feelings everything.” Buson’s wife wasn’t dead when he wrote his haiku about stepping on his dead wife’s comb, but hundreds of years later, his poem still resonates powerfully.

    1. Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town; Lectures and Essays on Poetry is a great book. Not haiku specific but a lasting volume of writerly insights. Hugo says stuff like:

      “you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed….Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”

  6. I use all my past experiences as a poet to enable others now. I have made more mistakes than most, and those past mistakes with haiku (in particular) are incredibly useful.

    Just reading reading reading lots of quality haiku isn’t enough. It’s enjoyable, but I never learnt how to craft my own attempts into haiku by reading. I would buy EVERY how to haiku book as well as journals, anthologies and other ways of presenting haiku.

    So what eventually worked for me?

    A kindness of editors such as Bob Spiess of Modern Haiku journal who wrote long friendly notes to an incredible amount of submitting poets! To those editors and also big names in haiku that treated us kindly but never patronisingly

    I can’t remember what finally clicked, as even if I wrote something highly lauded, I’d still write a hundred bad attempts to one good haiku! 🙂

    Perseverance on its own is not enough as we can persevere to write badly and be stubborn about what haiku is all about.

    It’s openness, in a nutshell. There may be some poets who find it extraordinarily easy to write any kind of poetry. That was never the way for me, not on a literary level at least. 🙂

    It’s complete and utter openness, for me, about what haiku might be. Once I pushed through my stubbornness, and obstinacy, about what haiku “is” I began to find my corner in haiku literature.

    One of the many important jumps or leaps of faith was when I realised I could not write haiku. I went beyond just what I call “going back to zero” every year, and took time out, a lot of time out.

    What emerged was my collection called Does Fish-God Know. It’s not perfect, but that is what makes it special and not just to me. It’s a combination of published peer-judged poems, but more importantly, a supportive editor who nabbed every new haikai poem I posted in public or in private forums. Of course he asked if he could. 🙂 But that editor worked closely with me, and he was in a tough place himself, and that empathy and openness, back in 2012, was my eureka moment. So the book is part published poems and unpublished poems, some never seen on the internet as well.

    It doesn’t get reviewed in journals, okay, I must be that ‘outlier’. 🙂 But time and time again people let me know it’s their favourite haiku collection.

    There’s a handful of Amazon reviews, and others where they couldn’t get them onto Amazon for technical reasons. But it’s a groundbreaking collection, and they can be imperfect.

    Does Fish-God Know:
    https://www.amazon.com/Does-Fish-God-Know-Alan-Summers/dp/1479211044/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=does+fish+god+know+alan+summers&qid=1609761246&sr=8-1

    So what does that have to do with editing, other than the obvious aspects of getting an entire collection together?

    It’s our words, and how we place them. Even tiny words such as prepositions, and articles (a, an, the) make a huge different. I’m writing up a big project that tackles the creation of a haiku which I hope, if I can buy myself some time, will finally come out this year.

    It’s all about putting you onto paper, literally and/or metaphorically. Not someone else’s authority on haiku, but your own authority.

    Once you have the bare bones or what you consider the right order of words and phrasing, step back, step right back, be brutally honest. Don’t say your attempt at haiku is rubbish or brilliant, but does it have you in there, invisibly of course, and can it stand the historic test of another person in a queue, bar, cafe, even restroom, being able to say: “I understand this. I’ve been there. I’ve seen this. I’ve experienced this. This could be me! How did you put “me” in “your” poem?!”

    If we have a mental set of tweezers, use them, to place the words in just the best combination(s). And just have fun, and be serious at the very same time, too! 🙂

    Alan Summers
    co-founder, Call of the Page
    founding editor, Blo͞o Outlier Journal

    1. Amazon doesn’t show who the editor is, so I will tell you:

      Brendan Slater! And it was his YTBN Press aka Yet To Be Named Press. He also designed the cover. A wonderful and open writer and editor.

      Alan

  7. Read as many haiku collections/ anthologies as you can. Take the time to savor each word of each poem.
    The Haiku Foundation digital library is an excellent resource.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Roberta. That’s great advice. I’m going to add a link to the THF digital library to the recommendations for further reading above.

    2. 4 January 2021

      I would strongly echo Roberta’s suggestion to read many haiku collections and anthologies. Anthologies can be especially helpful to a writer new to haiku since they can reflect a variety of voices in the English language haiku world. Cor van den Heuvel’s anthologies and Haiku in English edited by Kacian, Rowland and Burns are good places to start.

      And if you were like me you came to haiku via the world of general poetry. Keep reading there.

      And keep writing. You can’t wait for inspiration to make you take up the pen and paper or whatever digital tool you use. The poet must have a regular schedule and stick to it! Some days will be better than others. Some days will be better than a week but one never knows what day that will be.

      Every writer has their own voice. It can take time to find that voice.

      May you have many pleasant moments in 2021!

      Gary

  8. My advice to other poets or people who may be new to writing haiku:

    I think it’s important to remember that making a poem is a two-step process. First you write. Then you edit. Time and space are key ingredients and unpredictable ones at that. Some poems land fully formed (very few) or nearly so but most others require distance to find their final form. I think it’s important for the poet to check one’s own sense of authenticity regarding a poem. Is your poem saying what you want it to say? Are you getting in the way? Reading aloud is helpful. Multiple times in multiple settings. The language rings true or it does not. Usually, you can tell. The repetition helps to find this out.

    Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts and tips I try to remember in my own writing practice. Poems in general and haiku specifically are a challenge for any writer to do well. A friend once said “You’re lucky to write one anyone can remember.” But he also said that “only you experience the world exactly as you do. Now, convey that as immediately and honestly as you can.”

    I’m working on it.
    Good luck for a productive 2021.

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