Friday, March 8, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Five Senses for Writers

Five Senses for Writers – Write, Read, Listen, Edit, Trust

These senses…common senses…apply to anyone who writes: poetry, prose, marketing one-pagers, ads, jacket blurbs…even emails. For anyone who has ever been bcc’d on an email, and then “replied to all”, or had that done to them, you know what I mean. I only know because it’s happened to me!

The first thing you have to do is write. In cooking, there is a term “mis en place”. This refers to having all your ingredients prepped and ready to go before you start. If you’re writing a poetic form, make sure you have your notes on how to write a Pantoum, a Ghazal, a Villanelle, etc.

If you’re writing a technical piece, have your sites at the ready. For jacket blurbs? Make sure you’ve read what you’re blurbing. And so forth. If you’re writing an ekphrastic poem, print out a copy of the art. Unless you have two monitors, it will be well worth the ink to print what you’re writing about, otherwise you’ll miss the spider web over the ancient lightbulb, the cracks on an old table, the rosewood guitar in the corner. Prepare your mis en place so you don’t miss the details.

It’s important to know the “rules” so you can break them. Sometimes I just sit down and start writing. This will bring us to an important point discussed later.

Read, Listen, and Edit all go together. They apply not only to you as the writer, but to your trusted readers and editors as well. A trusted reader is someone who won’t lie to you. They’ll tell you if they have questions, or find typos, or if something doesn’t make sense. We all want to be told what we’ve written is brilliant. We need to be told if something isn’t.

You need to read what you’ve written as well. Does it make sense to you? Read it out loud. How does it sound? If you have any tongue twisters, you may want to re-write them to flow more easily. If your trusted readers get tripped up, they will tell you. If your readers get tripped up, they will stop reading. Play that one out and it’s a shame.

Trusted readers may make suggestions for changes that you can take or not. At the very least, they will point out areas you might like to write in a better way. They may say to you “this poem takes place in the 50’s. You’ve named the mother “Marigold”. NO ONE was named “Marigold” until the 60’s”. Or they may say “I don’t understand this line” and leave it up to you. If you have to explain something to a trusted reader, you’ve written part of it in your head and it didn’t get on the page. That’s like starting a conversation in the middle—no one will know what you’re talking about. They’ll just stop reading.

Editors may not know you very well. They will be more apt to make suggestions for the good of the piece, and therefore the good of you. Most of them will be kind. Some will make you feel like you’ve just stuck a safety pin in a light socket. Roll with it. They probably have more experience than you, and like you, their reputation is at stake. If you don’t like a particular suggestion, discuss it with them.

Poets especially, remember I said above “Sometimes I just sit down and start writing”? You may write a line, a stanza, maybe two stanzas to get to a poem, but they are not part of the poem. You may not recognize this. A trusted reader may not recognize this. An editor will. They may suggest you start a poem lower down because that is where the poem really starts, and it will make your piece stronger. Believe them. Read your poem out loud as is. Read it out loud as suggested. You will be floored.
Likewise, last stanzas. Sometimes we have a desire to “wrap everything up” in the last stanza. An editor may suggest you end the poem a stanza early. Do the same thing—read it out loud as is. Read it out loud as suggested. Then send that editor a bottle of good Bourbon, they have now helped you make your poem brilliant.

Two things about editing:

  1. No matter what changes you make, no matter who suggests the changes, it is still your work! No one else is going to put their name on it but you.

  1. Negative Capability (my favorite term). It is an invitation for readers to become invested in your work. Let your readers decide for themselves how a poem ends. There is nothing you can write that will be better than their imagination. Use this throughout your work…don’t tell them what’s in the closet, let them imagine it.  Negative capability is hugely important, particularly when writing poetry. 
For submissions in particular, are they addressed to the correct people? Are they addressed to the correct journal? Every submission period, we get submissions that reference a journal other than San Pedro River Review (SPRR). If you are submitting to a journal that does not take simultaneous submissions, you have now been busted. Read everything!

Trust yourself. Step away from your work and have a nice evening. Go back in the morning and make sure you still respect it. Change those commas back to periods and vice versa, read it out loud one more time. Every single week when I write these blog posts, AND when I write anything else, I spell out “you are” and “you have”.  I don’t even notice it, but then I go back in the mornings and change most of them to “you’re” and “you’ve”.

Then trust your heart, your gut, your trusted readers and your editors. Once your work has flown the coop, it is still yours, but it’s out in the world. If/when you make a book, you can edit it again.  I do that. After about six months, I almost always go back and edit the heck out of work that was published ages ago. You deal with that in your Acknowledgments Page—“Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following journals in the US and abroad who published my work, sometimes in slightly different form:”

Make sense? Feel good? Go write!!!

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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Slices Of Alice. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.


  1. You describe good about writers season but i believe that writers no need wait for a season

  2. Regina, I'm sorry but I'm not quite sure what you mean. My apologies. Tobi


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