Guest Blog Posts

How to organize your poems & submit more – guest blog post Brian Evans-Jones

When it comes to making submissions to magazine and journals, there’s a ton of good advice on the web about how to choose magazines, how many to send to, and how to keep track of your submissions.

But there’s another side to this process that doesn’t get written about as much: how to organize and keep track of your poems.

Yet this step is fundamental. You can’t make submissions if you don’t know what poems you’ve got and which ones are ready to send out. And to get publications, you need to submit your poems a lot—it’s tough out there! So it’s a great idea to have a good organization system for your poems that allows you to make more submissions faster.

In this post, I’m going to run through a few conventional (and not entirely satisfactory) options for how you might do that. Then—Spoiler Alert!—I’ll give you a system that I find really works, and that I know my students also like and use. So let’s get started.

Any system for keeping track of your poems needs to tell you three things:

  • What poems you’ve got to work with;
  • Which of these are good enough and ready enough to send out;
  • Which poems have already been published or accepted, and are therefore not available for future submissions.

First, let’s cover three options that I know people use in different ways.

Option 1: Print out all your poems and keep them in binders

The good old-fashioned approach!

Despite all the tech at our fingertips, there’s something to be said for this method. When you flick through your poems as printouts, I think you get a deeper connection to them than when they’re on a screen.

This can make it easier to see which poems are your strongest, and also which poems might go together well in a submission. And it’s also very easy to have a separate binder for Published Poems.

However, a big downside of this method is that every time you change a poem even a bit, you need to reprint and it replace it in the binder—which I know I would not manage to do!

Also, once you’ve been writing for a while, the sheer number of pieces of paper can become intractable.

So how about the next approach: keeping it all electronic?

Option 2: Make folders on your computer

In this system, you save paper and time by moving your poem files around on your computer in order to show what category they are in. For example, using folders called “Drafts in Progress,” “Finished Poems,” “Published Poems.”

Within the “Finished Poems” folder, you could also create sub-folders to show quality, such as:

  • “Best Poems”—these will be the ones you send out most often
  • “OK Poems”—these might occasionally make it into a submission
  • “Weaker Poems”—these might be fine for readings or other sharing, but aren’t going to be sent to journals.

On the plus side, this system is clear and simple.

But on the other hand, you might find it annoying to have to move your files around every time you want to change a poem’s status. Also, having to divide poems into “In Progress” vs. “Finished” is clumsy: we all know a poem is never really finished!

So, let’s look at a third system, one that allows you to record Completion and Quality more flexibly.

Option 3: Create and maintain a poem database

A database is basically a table on computer (like an Excel spreadsheet) that holds information about a bunch of different things.

In your case, the “things” are poems, and the information you can record in your database about each poem are data like:

  • Title
  • Topic/theme
  • Form
  • When it was written
  • Completeness

Any kind of spreadsheet program, like Excel or Numbers, will work, but you can also use an online database, such as Airtable.

Completeness and Quality are particularly important for submissions. By giving each poem a rating of, let’s say, between 1 and 5 for how close it is to finished, and then another rating for good you think it is, you can very rapidly see the following things:

  • Which poems are ready to go now, i.e. the ones that have “5”s and “4” for Quality and
  • Which poems it makes most sense to work on next: those that have “5”s and “4”s for Quality, but “3” or lower for Completeness (i.e. they aren’t done yet).
  • Which poems to ignore when it comes to submissions—those with Quality of 3 or below.

You can also add new kinds of information to keep track of, such as when and where a poem was published.

Sounds good, right? Well, actually there are several problems with this approach that I think make it not so great. In the first place, databases can get overwhelming. All that data is great, but (as noted above), it’s not the same as having a poem in your hand! Plus, as with the paper print-out method, you have to remember to go into the database and change information about a poem (such as its being more Complete or improving in Quality) every time you redraft. This can be a drag, to put it mildly.

Not to mention that giving numbers to things like Quality and Completeness can create the illusion of certainty where there is none! One day, you may think a certain poem is a finished and a 5. Then you read it two months later, and this time you feel it’s only a 3, and it also needs a redraft! Poetry doesn’t have linear “scores,” and so any kind of measure like that that’s applied to it is artificial.

Overall, I think the database method is actually the opposite of the creative, instinctive approach that you, as a poet, probably want!

So, it seems as though every method I’ve mentioned has significant flaws. And certainly, that has been my experience of all of them. So, finally, I’m going to give you the method that, after 20 years of thinking about this stuff, I actually use today and teach to my students:

Option 4: Create submission “packs” of 3-6 poems

I like this method because it’s more intuitive than databases, doesn’t need updating like paper printouts, and side-steps the rigidity of sorting poems into folders on the computer.

In this method, you cut to the chase: just comb through your poems looking for a few poems that seem as though they could go together to make an interesting and high-quality submission to a magazine.

What do I mean by “go together” and “interesting and high-quality”? Briefly, I mean things like:

  • Poems that both you and other readers think are strong.
  • Poems that you’ve done a full drafting process on, so they’re polished.
  • Poems that display a balance between connection and difference in their subject matters, so that the group as a whole seems coherent but not predictable.
  • Styles, voices and forms that also show some connections yet also some variation—again to keep things interesting and to show your range as a poet.
  • Poems that “speak” to each other in interesting ways—for example, two poems that use a similar image, or that look at a topic from very different perspectives.

Once you’ve found a group of poems that you think might work, whittle them down to 3-6 poems, (or about 3-8 pages), and put them in an order that seems to work—it starts with a hook, it ends with a poem that will resonate, and there’s some kind of connection between each poem and the next.

That group of 3-6 poems is now a “submission pack,” and is ready to send to publications!

And that’s more or less it. You don’t try to keep track of all your poems—just keep track of a small number of submission packs instead. If you want to make a new pack, you go hunting for more poems. New poems can be used to make a new pack, or you can swap them into an existing pack to replace a poem you’re no longer happy with.

(You do also need to keep a separate list of poems that have been published, where, and when—but a single file or even a handwritten page can be enough for that.)

Why does this method work? Here’s what I think:

  • Submission packs are a creative way to approach organization of poems, rather than a rigid one.
  • They are small-scale: you’re not trying to organize everything you’ve ever written, just a few poems, so it’s less overwhelming.
  • They get you ready for making submissions right away, which is after all the point!
  • They’re flexible: you can create as many or as few packs as you want or have time for.
  • They make submissions faster, because you don’t have to reconsider your whole poetic oeuvre every time—you just send out a pack you’ve already made.
  • In this way, they can vastly increase your chances of being published!

So there you are! Instead of trying to get 100% organized in a logical and fixed way, be more flexible, listen to chance and serendipity, and make yourself some Poem Packs. I think you’ll enjoy the difference!

Brian Evans-Jones is a poet and teacher from the UK, now living in New Hampshire. He won the 2017 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers, and was Poet Laureate of Hampshire, UK, in 2012?13. Since 2005 he has taught poetry in colleges and schools, in workshops, and online. His Publish Your Poems group helps poets learn how to get published in journals and magazines, and his students have gone on to various successes, such as publishing books, winning competitions, and achieving their first-ever publications. Brian also publishes free resources on poetry and creativity at The Poetry Place.

Publish Your Poems has a workshop groups coming up. More info and pricing here. Members of the group will learn how to find poetry magazines that are a good fit, edit and polish poems to submission-ready standard, discover ways to choose, arrange, and title poems, and become confident with the logistics of submissions, such as formatting poems and writing cover letters.

4 replies »

  1. All of these methods have advantages. I like the idea of a database because I have a massive amount of poems, and I’ve never been able to track them. I put them in folders and groups according to when they were created, dated determines their togetherness. x

Leave a Reply