Q&A - What is the best editing advice you've received?
By Yong-Yu Huang, Ludi Yu, and Daniel Boyko
What is the best editing advice you've received?
Someone once told me to try to find something to compare a piece to—whether it’s a well-known story or another poem that I’ve recently read. It’s always lovely when I see a piece that reminds me of a writer I know, and I make sure to mention it in my commentary or internal feedback so that the next editor can see that too. Firstly, it uplifts the submitter by assuring them that time and energy was put into reading their submission. I don’t think there’s a better feeling than hearing that your work reminds a reader of someone else’s, and I think that it’s a great way to approach reading some submissions—particularly if they seem to have drawn inspiration from a certain theme.
Also, you never know! You just might end up introducing the submitter to a new writer who they can enjoy as well.
In retrospect, the best editing advice I’ve ever received is from a fellow editor who suggested that I provide reasoning that substantiate my critiques (why I felt a certain line was unnecessary or necessary, why I liked or didn’t like something, why I thought my suggestion would have a valuable impact on the piece, etc.), and it’s something that I’ve really carried with me to every new assignment. It’s admittedly quite strange that I didn’t adopt this practice from the get-go, especially because this what-and-why technique has become so well-established in most middle and high school curricula. In fact, every time we read over a new submission and present our critiques to the submission’s author, we should be presenting them in a fashion similar to that of how we would present evidence in persuasive essays! For example— in either the specific or general commentary—one should try to explain why the original lines being pointed out aren't the most optimal way to phrase things, may not make sense to readers, etc., and then list any suggestions and an explanation for each on why these changes would make a positive impact on the piece. Doing so will ensure that the author will understand why these changes have to be made, and helps them understand your point of view—hopefully they will take this advice with them as they write other pieces!
When I was a First Reader, a higher-level editor told me in their feedback that the strongest Specific Comments are often longer than one sentence. Hands down, this is one of the best snippets of editing advice that I have ever received. At the time, I was still very much convinced of the (inaccurate) belief that Specific Comments had one purpose: identifying something about a piece, either good or bad, then moving on; get in, get out. Employing this mindset, I also often relied on pointing out grammatical errors in a piece—a mistake made by many editors and something else cured by terrific editing advice. (I actually considered writing a response about this advice, but… Voices has already done this area justice; see the Efficiently Editing Really Long/Short Pieces post for more information!)
Let me provide an example. One of my earliest Specific Comments might have looked something like the following: S1, L1: The image of the red clouds is slightly confusing. Here’s the thing, though: this comment, while possibly accurate, doesn’t do the writer a whole lot of good because it doesn’t provide a thorough rationale—or really any rationale for that matter. It simply identifies a confusing image. Because it fails to tell the writer why I found this image confusing, it makes it extraordinarily difficult to try to add clarity. From the writer’s perspective, maybe they felt that this image was actually very clear, very vivid, and one of the best lines of their whole poem. With this single-sentence comment, I will likely fail to convince the writer that their beloved line is flawed, and they may simply ignore this comment altogether. And truthfully, I don’t entirely blame them.
The best way to strengthen my comment is to explain the why behind it—why did I feel that the image was confusing? Was there a lack of an explanation? Was it too abstract? Did it feel tonally inconsistent from the rest of the poem? Did it feel unrelated or irrelevant? That is really what the editing advice I received was all about: the best Specific Comments are often longer than one sentence because it often takes more than one sentence to effectively explain both what component of a piece you believe could benefit from some tweaking and why you believe that. Our fearless former Managing Director, Jill Kolongowski, shortens this into the simple phrase: explaining both the what and the why of your thoughts.
Writing more than one sentence for each comment in the Specific Commentary encourages editors to achieve both of these aspects. I certainly found this to be the case with my own editing. With this advice in mind, I began to ensure that all of my Specific Comments were several sentences long. The result was that my comments became stronger and more helpful for the writer because they further detailed my personal opinions, creating a more convincing argument. This advice also helped me move on from overly emphasizing grammatical errors, because I started to notice that comments exclusively addressing grammar were significantly weaker than my longer, multi-sentence Specific Comments about other topics.
I have since taken this advice and recategorized it into what I like to call the Two-Sentence Formula: each comment in the Specific Commentary should have at least two sentences that address both the what and the why of your thoughts. The formula applies to both constructive criticism and positive feedback (in the latter’s case, explain why something worked, why you liked it, etc.), and it’s generally used so that the first sentence tackles explaining the what and the second sentence (and possibly additional sentences) tackles explaining the why. When starting out as an editor, it is often helpful to apply this formula to ensure that all of your comments thoroughly explain your thoughts. Yes, it’s true that plenty of effective Specific Comments are only one-sentence long, but if you look closely at them, I’m confident that they successfully manage to address the what and the why. Once you’re able to consistently achieve this in your editing, then you can start to move away from the formula. Maybe a few Specific Comments will only be one-sentence long, and you know what? That’s perfectly fine. It might even add variety to your Specific Commentary, making it more engaging and easier to read.
Yong-Yu Huang is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Ludi Yu is a Senior Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Daniel Boyko is an Editor-in-Chief at Polyphony Lit and a Blog Contributor Liaison at Voices.