Saturday, December 30, 2017

Manuscript Organization

As the publisher and editor of Terrapin Books, I see a number of manuscripts each submission period that include many outstanding poems; however, I often have to say no to these manuscripts because they are not yet ready for publication. What's missing? Good organization. That's a simple and honest answer, but good manuscript organization is by no means an easy project. We poets all wrestle with it. We lay out our poems on the bed, the floor, the table. We go away to retreats or hole up in hotels, wrestling with those pages and hoping to find the right plan. That right plan can be very elusive.

Many poets, especially those working on a first manuscript, fall prey to the topical arrangement. That is, they put all related poems in the same section—a section for poems about birds, another for poems about vegetables, another for poems about dogs, and so on. So what's wrong with that? It's tedious for the reader, for one thing. Such an organization deprives the reader of one of the greatest pleasures of reading a poetry book, i.e., surprise. The topical arrangement results in predictability and monotony. After I've read 3 or so bird poems, I'm pretty sure that when I turn the page, there will be another bird flying around. My attention to the poem disappears, my interest disappears, my excitement disappears. All flown away. This topical approach does sometimes work, but more often than not it doesn't.

What does work? Here is a list of four excellent discussions of manuscript organization that you might find useful as you wrestle with your poems trying to find a pleasing plan, one that will turn a bunch of poems into a collection of poems, a work of art.

Thinking Like an Editor: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript
by April Ossman

On Making the Poetry Manuscript
by Jeffrey Levine, publisher of Tupelo Press

Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems
by Natasha Saje

Putting Together a Manuscript of Poems
by Marilyn McCabe

I'm posting this list now as Terrapin Books will reopen for submissions on January 22 and will remain open thru February 28, 2018. So get your manuscript in good order and check out our Guidelines and our FAQs.


  1. MS ordering in a nutshell: clarification or complication?
    Very helpful.

  2. Also Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm (Cleveland State University Press, 2006).


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