How to Put Together a Poetry Manuscript for Publication

Transform Your Sheaf of Papers Into a Manuscript You Can Submit

Man Writing in Journal by River in Berlin
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Putting together a poetry manuscript to submit to contests or publishers is not a walk in the park. Expect it to take an hour or two a day over the span of a week, month, or even a year, depending on how much work you have, how polished the pieces are, and how much time you can afford to spend on the project. 

Despite that, creating a poetry manuscript for publication is an important next step in a writer's career. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to make this goal a reality.

Step 1: Choose Your Poems

Begin by typing (or printing from your computer files) all the poems you want to consider putting into your book, one per page (unless of course, the poem is longer than a single page). This is a chance to make any small revisions you want to make to individual poems so that you can concentrate on the shape of the book as a whole.

Step 2: Plan the Book Size

To get started, decide how big of a book you want to create—20 to 30 pages for a typical chapbook, 50 or more for a full-length collection (more on exact page amounts later). You may well change your mind about this when you are actually selecting and ordering the poems, but this will give you a starting point.

Step 3: Organize the Poems

With the length of your book in mind, sift through all the pages you have typed or printed up, and put the poems into piles that you feel belong together in some way—a series of poems on related themes, a group of poems written using a particular form, or a chronological sequence of poems written in the voice of a single character.

Step 4: Take a Step Back

Let your piles sit at least overnight without thinking about them. Then pick up each pile and read through the poems, trying to see them as a reader and not as their author. If you know your poems well and find your eyes skipping ahead, read them out loud to yourself to make sure you take the time to listen to them.

Step 5: Be Selective

When you’ve read through a stack of poems, pull out any poems that no longer seem to fit in that particular pile or seem redundant, and put the poems you want to keep together in the order you want your readers to experience them.

You may find yourself doing lots of reshuffling over time, moving poems from one stack into another, melding whole groups of poems together by combining stacks, or discovering new groupings that need to be separate and on their own. Don’t worry about it. You will likely come across new ideas for books or chapbooks and also change your mind a number of times before the poems settle into the shape of a finished book manuscript.

Step 6: Take a Breather

After you’ve pared down and reordered each pile of poems, let them sit again at least overnight. You can use this time to mull over your reading, listening for the poems that stand out in each stack and how they sound together.

Pay attention to other poems that may have popped into your mind when you were reading a certain stack to see if you should add them or replace similar poems.

Step 7: Reevaluate Book Length

Think again about the length of the book you want to create. You may decide that one stack of related poems would make a good short chapbook. You may have a really large pile of poems that will all go together into a long collection. Or you may want to combine several of your piles to create sections within a full-length book.

Step 8: Create an Actual Book

Next, try actually making the manuscript into a book that you can live with and leaf through. Staple or tape your pages together put them into a three-ring notebook, or use your computer to print them out in book format. If you’re preparing an email or online submission, you may still want to print up the poems you’re considering—shuffling paper pages is easier than editing a computer file.

If you have several long pieces, you may wish to lay everything out in a word processing document with the correct margins for the completed book size, to see how more exactly how many pages the collection will consume.

For a typical 6-by-9-inch printed book, you'll want the final page count to be divisible by four (include room for a title page, dedication page, table of contents, copyright page, and acknowledgments page in your count as well). For ebooks, the page count can be any number.

If you want your document to look like a finished book when printed out, use your software to make "mirror image" pages when setting up your page size so that the left and right pages will face each other as they would when professionally bound, and add page numbers in a footer or header.

That said, don’t think too much about typography or design at this point. You want simply to put the poems together so that you can read through the book and see how they interact in that order.

Step 9: Choose a Title

After you’ve decided on the length and general shape of your manuscript, choose a title for your collection. A title may have suggested itself during your sifting and ordering of the poems, or you may want to read through them again to find one—perhaps the title of a central poem, a phrase taken from one of the poems, or something completely different.

Step 10: Proofread

Carefully proofread your entire manuscript from beginning to end after you’ve put it in order. If you’ve spent a lot of time with the book, you may be tempted to give it only a cursory read-through. In this case, you need to set it aside for a few days or weeks so that when you come back to it you can pay close attention to each poem, each title, each line break, and each punctuation mark.

You will likely find yourself making additional revisions to the poems at this point—don’t hold back, as this final reading may be your last chance to make changes before you send the book out into the world.

Proofreading your own work is difficult—ask a friend, or two, to proofread the manuscript for you, and go through all their notes carefully. Fresh eyes will likely spot some errors that slid right by you but do not feel that you must accept every editorial change they may suggest. When in doubt about punctuation or line breaks, read the poem aloud.

Step 11: Research Venues for Submission

Next, it’s time to seek appropriate venues for submission. Use a list of poetry publishers or links to poetry contests to identify places you want to submit your manuscript. It’s important to read the poetry books they’ve published or the previous winners of their competitions in order to decide if you want them to publish your work.

Targeting your submissions to publishers of like works can also save you time and money on submissions that would have been rejected for not being appropriate to their current catalog. Publishing is a business, and if a manuscript wouldn't fit in with others in the company's catalog, its marketing department wouldn't know what to do with it, regardless of its quality. Weed those publishers out before sending the manuscript anywhere. Keep notes on why a publisher is a good fit, to mention in your submission cover letter.

Step 12: Apply!

After you have selected a publisher or a contest, reread its guidelines and follow them exactly. Print a fresh copy of your manuscript in the format requested, use the submission form if there is one, and enclose the applicable reading fee.

Try to let go of your manuscript after you’ve mailed it off—it may take a long time for you to get a response, and obsessing over one manuscript submission will only set you up for disappointment. It never hurts, however, to keep thinking about the order and title of your book and to submit it to other contests and publishers in the meantime (so long as the companies you’ve sent it to accept simultaneous submissions).