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New to Haiku: Ten Tips for Polishing Your Haiku (or How to Edit Your Haiku, Part 2)

So, you’ve written a haiku, edited it to the best of your ability, and you’d like to send it to a contest or a journal. Yet, somehow, you can’t bring yourself to submit. Maybe you aren’t able to recapture the experience that led you to create the poem in the first place. The rhythm or structure isn’t working. Or perhaps you don’t know exactly what the problem is, but something just isn’t right. What do you do now?

This is where a haiku critique group can help.

In a haiku critique group, members bring in their unpublished work and let other poets discuss (and often dissect) their haiku. (Since these meetings aren’t open to the public, you can still consider your work to be unpublished.) Usually, someone in the group takes notes, so that you can review the comments at a later time. Everything about your poem will be examined: word choice, line length, subject, overall shape, ease of reading. This can be a stressful experience for first-time participants, but it does get easier with time. It helps to remember that those haiku which generate the most conversation and debate are usually poems that almost, but don’t quite, hit the mark. These are the haiku that you want to see discussed, because they have so much potential.

If you think of your initial editing of your poem as rock tumbling, the critique group is where you add the polish and shine to your gemstone. This is what I took away from attending a haiku critique group yesterday:

Check your use of articles. Are you overusing “the” or “a”? Does “the” work better than “a” or vice versa? Would adding back – or eliminating – an article before your subject change the reading of the poem?

Keep shifting words around. If it’s a three-line poem, shuffle the line order. If your poem is a monoku, reorder the words. Do any of these new versions add additional ways to read the poem?

Consider the number of lines. Read the poem aloud. Where do you naturally pause when you read the haiku? If there is no break, maybe this poem should be a single line. If there are obvious places to pause in your monoku, maybe you should split the haiku into more lines.

Make your words work for you. I’ve mentioned this tip before, but I saw it in a new light yesterday. As you consider using words and phrases with multiple meanings, be aware that readers from other countries may have different definitions for your words! These new ways of reading your haiku might work in your favor, but they might not.

Accept that other poets will experience your poem differently than you do. This can be uncomfortable to realize, but it’s also exciting. It might mean that what seems like a simple edit to you can open up your poem to multiple interpretations.

Deleting key words can make a poem stronger by adding ambiguity. I’ve spoken about the importance of deleting unnecessary words in your haiku. Eliminating key words can sometimes work in your favor as well, by allowing new ways for the reader to enter into the experience.

Trust your reader to bring something to the table. Don’t spoon-feed the reader your exact experience. This can be stifling, and make the reader feel like they are on the outside of the poem, looking in. There should be breathing room in your haiku so others can join in the experience.

Punctuation is rarely used in haiku, but it can be powerful when included. Choose any punctuation wisely. Does it add to the impact of the poem?

Consider the visual aspects of your haiku. Italicizing certain words, using a wide or narrow font, or choosing spaces, an ellipsis, or an em dash all convey a certain sense of movement. Do you want your reader to speed through the work or move through it slowly? The shape of your poem can evoke your subject matter. What draws the reader’s eye?

Repetition of words can be very powerful. Use this technique thoughtfully and carefully. Repetition in haiku may cause the reader to slow down, stumble, or fixate on certain words.

After a critique, you may find others’ editing of your words to be helpful, overwhelming, or both. Remember that ultimately, this is your haiku. What do you want it to say to the world? Honor the experience and feelings that led you to write the poem in the first place. When in doubt, it’s always okay to let your work sit for awhile and come back to it later.

Do you have a tip for editing haiku? Let me know in the comments!

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. The Haiku Foundation reminds you that participation in our offerings assumes respectful and appropriate behavior from all parties. Please see our Code of Conduct policy for more information.

P.S. My thanks to everyone at Cloudlanders for a wonderful meeting yesterday.

Julie Bloss Kelsey is the current Secretary of The Haiku Foundation. She started writing haiku in 2009, after discovering science fiction haiku (scifaiku). She lives in Maryland with her husband and kids. Julie's first book of poetry, The Call of Wildflowers, is available for free online through Title IX Press. Connect with her on Twitter @MamaJoules.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Dear Julie,
    What a great reading! Many thanks for sharing these useful and inspiring tips about how to write a haiku.
    I am Italian mother tongue however, I enjoy writing in English which is my great passion. I started writing haiku about two years ago. What began as a game, has become a challenge and a pleasure.
    I actually joined a LinkedIn haiku group and Alan Summers gave me a lot of very good advice and here I am! Always eager to learn something new every day.
    My haiku journey is so fascinating I think it will last forever.

  2. Great article Julie! Good synthesis of the critical points of review. I hate I missed the meeting but will tuck this away to revisit and share with others. Cheers!

  3. I missed the meeting because I had another engagement, but your article made up for it, Julie.
    A truly insightful read. When I had started writing haiku 7 years back, I used to omit articles sometimes and I was made aware of the term “Tontoism” and was advised to be careful of it. With practice and reading haiku written by others, I came to understand how articles change the flavour, tone, beats and essence of a haiku.
    You have made such great points and a BIG thanks for this!

  4. As a newcomer, I appreciate this advice. I often will just breeze through writing just to get my immediate impressions down, and then afterwards I will go back to make adjustments.

    But when I’m participating in daily prompts on Twitter there isn’t that chance for setting something aside if I want to share it for that day’s prompt. There have been plenty of times when I notice where I can make edits after I’ve posted it 😀

    Are there any active critique groups where someone like me can join?

    1. Hi petro, thanks for your comments! To find a critique group, I would suggest asking around to other haiku poets, particularly ones who live near you. While Zoom meetings are nice, it’s also great to meet up with folks in person. If you are a member of the Haiku Society of America, you might check with your regional coordinator. I hope this helps!

    2. petro c. k.: “Are there any active critique groups where someone like me can join?”

      Just to note that although it is online rather than interpersonal, there is the THF Forum, where if you sign up there are ‘mentor’ areas for beginner and advanced workshopping. They are not in the public areas of the forum, so that the verses remain private and thus meet the submission criterion of ‘unpublished’.
      https://thehaikufoundation.org/forum_sm/index.php

  5. Cool advice!

    The power of articles where ‘a’ might be even more powerful than ‘the’ or vice versa is always worth considering as well “when” to refrain from using an article [a, an, the].

    .
    The definite and indefinite article – how a house passes along the train of haiku
    https://area17.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-definite-and-indefinite-article-how.html

    .
    Every word is both an ‘island’ and a ‘bridge’, or one or the other, but when it’s neither, as said above, remove it even if it appears ‘central’ to the haiku. The word or even phrase might appear as the key aspect, but it might be a diversion or red herring. It’s surprising how the vital stuff is overshadowed by what we consider the ‘source’ of the poem!

    .
    If you think your current draft of a haiku is set in stone, leave it for a week, or longer if you can bear to do so. It’s truly remarkable what the time away from a poem reveals to us, with potential flaws.

    .
    I have on occasion left a poem for a month or longer, and that is really a fascinating test for us as a poet: Leaving our poem alone, without our company.

    Often the flaws appear as we come to that poem more as an ‘outside reader’ then as an author. It’s humbling, but it make for an exceptional haiku rather than just a competent attempt.

    1. Alan, I’ve never thought of words in haiku as islands and/or bridges – I like that! Thanks for your comments.

      1. Thanks Julie! 🙂

        We can all be guilty of not realising that a word is superfluous or the reverse, that we have reduced the power of a word, or a phrase, by leaving out a word that helps. Islands need metaphorical ‘bridges’. 🙂

        warm regards,
        Alan

    2. “Every word is both an ‘island’ and a ‘bridge’, or one or the other,”- what a beautiful thing to contemplate, Alan. Your comments always give such valuable and unique insights.
      I have saved the link to your article. Thank you!

      1. Thanks Vandana! 🙂

        Sometimes it’s a very little word that makes or breaks a haiku. As haiku are often incredibly short adding a word (for grammar & syntax) or realising when to leave out a little word is important.

        We might like to start the haiku off with something like “on” or “in” etc… though sometimes, whatever little word kickstarted the draft, can be left out in the next draft version.

        Sometimes small words can be simply a warm up exercise to begin a new haiku and can be removed in the next version (draft). Sometimes inserting a small word rather than a big word (verb, noun) can have more power. Little words are heroes either way! 🙂

        warm regards,
        Alan

  6. Great article Julie – your advice on articles is good, but writers shouldn’t be too overzealous in their removal. Too much pruning can result in poor usage and sounding like a non-native speaker or a poor translation.

  7. What a timely and much needed article about this process. Thanks for this, Julie! This is fantastic!

  8. Hi Julie,
    Thank you for capturing and mirroring the process so fully!!
    I’m very grateful for the communities of supportive critique fostered around this dynamic form. Using technology to facilitate these gatherings has been invaluable, as well.

    1. Thanks, Lorraine! I was surprised at how much I picked up in an afternoon. 😀

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