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How to Put Together a Poetry Chapbook


A silver pen sits on a book page beside a dry rose petal.
Via Unsplash

I adore poetry. I've always been a big fan of Poe and Dickenson and Frost, and I love discovering new pieces that make me smile, frown, cry, or think about life. I guess that's why I started writing poetry; it helped me put the world I experience down onto paper. I started publishing my poetry as both a way of expressing that experience and, of course, making a bit of money and a name for myself.


Are you interested in creating a poetry collection? Good for you! You might want to start with a simple chapbook, to get your foot in the door of publishing poetry. Here's how to do that.


What is a Poetry Chapbook?

A poetry chapbook is the name given to a poetry collection that's not quite full-length. Most poets write chapbooks as either in-between collection releases or proofs of concept for a full-length collection, but others only publish chapbooks.


They're called chapbooks because originally, they were pamphlets sold by traveling merchants called chapmen - "chap" from the Old English for "trade." These chapmen would bring boxes of goods to various towns; they had to be carried quite some way, so the editions they kept inside had to be relatively short and small.


How long is a poetry chapbook?

As I mentioned, chapbooks are shorter than your average poetry collection. While a standard poetry collection can be as many as 80 to 100 pages long, a chapbook tends to be between 40 and 60 pages long at the maximum, averaging around 50 pages of poetry.


How to Put Together a Poetry Chapbook

Putting together a chapbook is easier than you think it is; you just have to break it down into smaller pieces like you would with any goal. You do have to do a little prep work, but beyond that, it's almost as simple as write, re-write, and pull it all together.


Set a theme or pick a goal

Before you pick up your pen or open Notepad, it's a good idea to sit down and brainstorm what you want your finished product to look like - in this case, that means picking a theme or a goal for your collection.


Some common poetic themes include things like:

  • Nature and how we interact with it

  • Human nature and the human experience

  • Love and how it affects our lives

  • Struggles and challenges

  • Faith and foundations

If you've already written some poetry, consider what you've written about. What inspires you? What are your poems about on a deeper level? If you've never written any poetry before, try reading some! Find the poems that speak to you and pay attention to what the themes are.


Of course, you don't have to pick a singular theme for a poetry collection. Instead, you might pick a goal. You might want to write in new formats or styles, cover more challenging subjects, or simply challenge yourself to write more consistently. If you're going this route, I recommend setting SMART goals:

  • Specific. What one, definite thing do you want to accomplish?

  • Measurable. Give your goal a number, whether that's a number of poems to write or a timeline to write them in.

  • Achievable. Set up a clear ending, a place where you can check it off the to-do list.

  • Realistic. Remember that you're human and keep your goal to something you can accomplish with the time and resources you have.

  • Timely. Set an actual deadline for yourself to keep your work on pace.

Dedicate time to writing

Yay, you've got your planning done! Now what? Now, dear writer, you have to actually do the writing. Write down things that inspire you - snippets of conversation, particularly good quotes, descriptions of your day, or anything that might become a good poem later.


Most people advise that you set aside a specific block of time every day to write so that you can form a long-term habit and while I'm sure this is sound advice and works for many people, it's not something I can manage. My schedule is hectic and variable; I'm a work-from-home mom, so I can't predict that I'll always have a certain timeslot open to write.


Therefore, if you're anything like me, I recommend setting a goal for the actual work itself rather than a specific time; maybe you could aim to write one poem every week by writing snippets throughout the weekdays. Keep in mind that you're not editing anything yet. All you're doing is getting words down on paper so that you have something to work with.


That being said, it is a good idea to try to write at least something every single day, even if it's only one line. It'll make progressing much easier and you'll still feel accomplished even on harder days. And if you miss a day, you'll be okay; there are still snippets from the rest of the week you can turn into poetry.


Dedicate time to re-writing

Once you have your poems written, you'll need to dedicate some time to editing and re-writing them. As un-fun and frustrating as that process can be, it's also the only way to make sure that your poems are actually saying what you want them to say.


Some questions to ask yourself while editing are:

  • Does this poem sound good when read aloud OR does it look right on the page?

  • Am I using the right spelling of this word?

  • Could this be rewritten to better express what I was feeling?

This is also the time to decide which poems you really want to include in your collection. There may be some more personal poems you aren't ready or willing to share, or there may be poems that don't fit your theme. In that case, save them in a separate place; that way, you can use them in a later collection if you want to.


You probably won't need as much time to re-write as you did to write, but don't rush this process. Take your time to add some polish to your words.


Compile and format

Okay, you've written, re-written, and selected your poems. Now it's time to actually format them into a chapbook. Decide the order in which your poems should appear, then place them all in one document, one poem per page. If you're self-publishing, this is the point during which you'll add front and back matter and set the trim size. If you're traditionally publishing, this is when you'll add a cover letter and begin querying.


Choose a publishing method

Speaking of publishing, now's when you're going to decide how you want to do that. You can either look for a traditional publishing contract or self-publish.

Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing means having your work put out by a publishing press, whether they're a small indie company or one of the Big Five. Depending on the size of the establishment you want to query, you might need an agent, which means querying them first, then bringing your book in front of different potential publishers and waiting for an offer.


Traditional publishing has the advantage of being widely distributed and more reputable than self-publishing, meaning you're likely to have better sales - especially if your chosen publisher has a good marketing department. That being said, this method takes a long time; you may not see your work published for several years after you write it. You'll also have less control over the publishing process - you won't be choosing your own cover, interior design, or marketing strategy.

Self-publishing

Self-publishing means that you are putting your work out into the world entirely on your own without going through a publishing house or agent at all. The most popular method for doing this is using a self-publishing and/or print-on-demand service. My personal recommendations are:

  • Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), which offers great royalty rates but terrible distribution.

  • Draft2Digital, which offers fantastic distribution and decent royalties at the cost of having limited backend design features.

  • Ingram Spark, which has great distribution and fine royalties, but has much higher fees in the publishing process.

I also recommend partnering with a professional marketer if you're new to self-publishing, as marketing is incredibly important to sales and doing marketing on your own is difficult and time-consuming.

Conclusion

Writing a poetry chapbook can be both relatively easy (well, as easy as writing ever is) and quite fun. It's a great way to express yourself even if you never plan on publishing it, and a wonderful way to get credits under your belt if you do decide to publish.


Interested in writing a poetry chapbook? I've created a guided journal that will help you do just that in one year, including resources for compiling those poems into a chapbook and naming it. You can find the journal at the link below.


A graphic of a pink feather quill and an inkwell. Black text reads, "Write a Poetry Chapbook in One Year: A Guided Journal"



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Jim Potter
Jim Potter
Jan 07, 2023

Very informative. Well-written. Valuable.

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