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Common Fence: The Common Sense Approach to Deciding on a Piece

Your commentary is written. Your feedback to previous readers is done. All you need to do is forward the submission. You click “recommend reject,” certain of your choice. But wait. What if you’re causing Polyphony to miss out on something great? You switch to “recommend accept.” Then you glance at the length of your specific commentary and think about changing to “recommend reject” again.

You email Billy to ask him to add a “maybe” button to the website. It never happens.

When you’re on the fence about accepting or rejecting a piece, ask yourself:

Why am I on the fence?

Even if you’re not able to pin down exactly what it is about a piece that you like or dislike, maybe you can pin down one aspect. Odds are that this question is too broad for you if you’re really on the fence. So let’s break it up.

What do I like about this piece?

When trying to justify to yourself why you like the piece, you may think of something intangible that only you understand. Maybe you just like the feeling it gives you or the way the words sound. Of course, you would want to be more specific in your feedback to the author, but we’re talking about the thoughts in your head right now.

Is what I like about the piece unique?

Try to think of pieces that are similar to the one you just read. Did you like similar things in those pieces? Look at the topic, voice, rhythm, structure, and diction. Does this piece bring new perspectives, language, or ideas to the table? If what you like about the piece feels similar to other pieces, you might want to consider rejecting. If it really was an all-star piece that outshone all the other pieces you know of that are similar to it, then you probably wouldn’t be on the fence. Odds are, it’s similar to something we’re already considering publishing. If it is different, we might be missing out if we don’t publish it!

What don’t I like?

To me, this question is the most important one. It’s harder to pin down exactly what you don’t like because you do have to make it completely tangible. If it’s tangible, then you can address whether it’s something that can be fixed. Start off broad. What about the piece rubs you the wrong way? Is it the content or the execution? Try to make what you don’t like more specific with every question. If it’s the content, maybe you ask yourself about the narration, characterization, or plot. If it’s the execution, maybe you ask yourself about the lead, conclusion, literary language, sentence structure, or grammar.

How fixable are the things that I don't like?

Sort issues with the submission into surface-level issues and deeper issues. Surface-level issues are things like grammar that can be easily addressed with an in-house edit. You can even include things like minor word choice or sentence structure issues that don’t appear that frequently. Deeper-level issues are things that would take more time to fix: plot, theme, or characterization. Imagine how much of the piece you would *need* to change before publishing. If it requires you to rewrite and not edit, then it might be time to reject and wait for a revision.

Is it authentically teenage?

Part of what makes Polyphony special is that it is a literary magazine run by high school students for high school students. Most of our pieces have something about them that feels very authentic to how a teenager writes, thinks, and feels. Read through our published pieces to get an idea of what this vibe feels like.

Is there a point?

Oftentimes, when there’s something off about a piece that I can’t quite put my finger on, it’s that the “so what?” is missing. Be on the lookout for beautiful language for the sake of beautiful language. Writing should have a point—and you should be able to find that point without working too hard.

Does this piece make you feel?

If you feel anything strongly, this piece is doing its job. If you’re on the fence, it might be because the piece doesn’t make you feel. The piece may contain a good idea and it may even be well-written, but it’s bland. Ultimately, what we want at Polyphony is to publish pieces that make our readers—and our editors—feel some sort of way. If you’re wishy-washy about accepting a piece, then our readers will be wishy-washy while reading it.

If you really can’t decide whether to accept or reject, tell your editorial chain in the internal notes. We want your opinion, no matter how nuanced it may be and how long it may take to read.


Pauline Paranikas is the Editor-in-Chief of Voices and an Executive Editor at Polyphony LIT. She's a member of Walter Payton's Class of 2021.

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