Avoiding Intimidating Yourself
By Grace Yue
Editing others’ work can be a humbling experience. You look at his or her writing and think, I could never write anything as good as this. How can I improve something that’s so far above my own ability? I’m not qualified to edit this.
But, to my fellow Polyphony editors: you all are qualified editors, even if you think that these submissions are way over your head.
I had minimal creative writing experience when I applied to Polyphony as a First Reader. I didn’t have any impressive writing projects to my name - I just kept a diary and sometimes composed bad poetry when the mood struck. I was a good writer, but not necessarily a good creative writer. I enjoyed writing in my journal and the occasional school essay, but when it came to inventing worlds of my own in fictional writing, I was pretty hopeless. So initially, I wasn’t sure if I belonged on Polyphony’s editorial staff either.
But let’s think about this: why does Polyphony allow quite literally anyone to apply as a First Reader? Because the point of editing is not to be a world-class writer. You need to be able to write before you can edit, but you don’t need to be a stellar writer in order to edit stellar work.
By the nature of being an editor, you’re experienced with various kinds of writing. And reading a wide range of creative writing provides unique insights into what makes a piece clear or unclear, resonating or cliche, enjoyable or monotonous. But actually putting these insights into words - which is what an editor’s job is - forces you to think about writing in a different way. Most of us can glance at a poem or skim a page of creative prose and quickly gauge its quality, but the process of editing is justifying why the piece is high- or low-quality. What makes this piece successful? Why does this part seem oddly-placed? Is this piece’s moral/message valid and clear to an audience?
Further, when you edit for Polyphony, you aren’t editing your own work. This maintains a detachment between you and the submission you’re editing - any flaws in the piece aren’t perceived as a failure on your part, since you didn’t write the piece. As an editor, you learn to look at a piece with objectivity, which can eventually be applied to your own writing as well.
Looking at this from the writer’s perspective, even if they’re stellar writers, they might not know what exactly makes their writing “good” or enjoyable. Their teachers, peers, and parents might have complimented them on their work before, but if they don’t know why their writing is good, then that’s a serious disadvantage. It’s safe to say that many authors who submit to Polyphony are excellent writers, but not good editors of their own work.
So if you’re feeling insecure about your own ability when editing a stellar piece, you can keep this advice in mind:
If you’re acting as a Second Reader or Additional Reader, then check previous editors’ commentaries. I try not to do this until after I’ve formed my own opinion on the piece, just to avoid bias from previous editors’ opinions, but if you feel like reading over others’ opinions would help, then by all means go ahead.
Look at pieces that you’ve edited before from the same genre. Or if this is your first piece, go back to the sample poem that you edited, or even the First Reader Resources that Billy emailed you when you initially applied as a First Reader. As a brief exercise, summarize exactly what each specific comment is pointing out (ex. “This line is off-rhythm,” “Word choice could be better here,” or, “This seems off-topic.”) Make a shortlist of the most common problems in the First Reader Resources as well as your own sample poem, and run down the list as you edit. Don’t let this become a checklist that a piece can “pass” or “fail,” but sometimes it helps to have more solid standards in front of you when editing.
You can also make this list into a running list of things that can be good or bad about a piece. Eventually you’ll find that you won’t need the list anymore, but for editors who are just starting out, this can be very helpful.
Just edit. As hard as it is, don’t be deterred by the quality of the writing. Just sit back and enjoy the piece for what it is. Then write down your thoughts afterwards, and formalize those into General and Specific Commentary.
So, go edit that piece that’s been waiting for you on Submissions Manager for the past week. You got this.
Grace Yue is the Managing Editor of Voices and a First Reader at Polyphony Lit.