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Cracking the Enigma: Pieces You Don´t Understand

by Ore Amosu

A Polyphony editor's worst nightmare: not knowing what to comment.


You know the feeling you have when you can’t open a stubborn jar of jam? You try so hard to break the enigma that is the jam jar, but you can’t help but feeling frustrated and confused. Awful, right? It's okay. You’re not alone. Every Polyphony editor has experienced this feeling at one point, and I'm certainly not an exception. I remember the first time that a piece truly stumped me, and for the first time when editing, I had no clue what to say.

After a long day at school, I dropped my backpack on the carpet of my disheveled room and quickly sunk into my computer chair. Okay, I thought, Let's get this Polyphony piece edited. After signing in to Submittable, a Polyphony editor's best friend, I clicked on the title of the fictional piece I had been assigned.

I began to read about a dystopian universe in which a cruel and strange ritual took place. I was captivated but also very confused. The piece lacked elaboration on the purpose and significance of the ritual, leaving me with many questions. Beyond my confusion about the introductory ritual scene, I was also unsure about the characterization of the mother. It seemed as if the author intended the mother to be an evil villain, but the context clues were vague and difficult to identify. The motivations of the protagonist were also unclear, making it harder to understand the piece and what the author wanted to say to their audience.

I was extremely flustered. This was the first instance in my short time editing for Polyphony that I had encountered a piece that I didn't know what feedback to give. I wanted to give the author the best commentary that I could, but I felt like I couldn't do that if I didn't understand their point of view or purpose when writing the piece. How can you give someone advice if you don't understand where they are coming from? I thought as I sat and stared at my computer screen in a state of frustration and confusion. What am I going to do?

The words on the screen continued to jump out at me and taunt me until I suddenly had an idea. Why don't I just take it paragraph by paragraph and see what I can say? I proceeded to read the piece again, examining it paragraph by paragraph, pinpointing and commenting on specific elements of the piece that I had been confused by and wanted more clarification on. Eventually I had written encouraging comments that I really felt would help the author improve their piece and make readers more captivated by their dystopian society. Once I had finished editing, I pressed SEND on Submittable, and my feedback was officially complete.

I got out of my computer chair, proud of myself for tackling a hard piece and surprised at how simple editing the piece was than it had initially seemed.

While editing a piece of writing that is difficult to comprehend can seem daunting, I realized that it's not as scary as it may appear. Here's some advice that you can use when coming across a piece that you’re finding difficult to understand:

  1. Read the piece paragraph by paragraph or stanza by stanza. This has helped me so much when figuring out how to edit pieces that are confusing to me. If the piece is only one stanza or paragraph, reading the piece line by line will help you just as much! Doing this allows you to identify the areas that you didn't understand more easily, which makes providing commentary way less stressful.

  2. Tell the author what you didn't understand. The author will never know that you found an issue with their piece if you don’t tell them in your commentary. Don’t be afraid to tell the author that you didn't understand an element of their piece. Commentary voicing a need for clarification is very helpful, as it lets the author know that they may need to spend some more time developing some elements of their piece.

  3. Suggest to the author ways that you think that the confusion in the piece could be clarified. Be sure to also suggest to the author ways that they could clear up the confusion. What specific element of their piece do they need to elaborate more on? What literary devices could they use to elaborate more or eliminate the confusion? Suggesting specific ways that the author could clear up any confusing elements found in their piece makes it easier for them when they are proofreading their piece again and looking at the elements you found confusing.

  4. Compliment the author on things you liked. Additionally, remember to think about elements of the piece that you liked and compliment the author on their great writing! What character did you find really fascinating? Was the description in the piece captivating? For example, when editing the dystopian piece, I really liked the vivid imagery that the author used to describe the grim environment, so I made sure to let them know in my commentary. Kindness goes a long way and can help increase an author’s confidence about their piece!

  5. Try your best. I know it sounds cliché, but try your best. If after giving it your best effort you still can't figure out anything to comment, it's okay. You can always send an email to the managing editor, and he'll be happy to help you get to a good starting point. Don't be scared to ask for help or ask questions when you're confused!

My time editing for Polyphony has been filled with dystopian universes, sea life, and emotions of loss, regret, and love. While I am only a Junior Reader, I have learned a lot about providing valuable commentary to authors that makes a poem or story more understandable and captivating to an audience. I've also realized that it's okay if I come across a piece that confuses me. Editing is very much a learning process, and it's okay if you don't fully understand a piece after reading it for the first time. A large part of what makes editing for Polyphony such a cool experience is learning how to deal with different genres and styles of writing that aren't always easy to decode.


Ore Amosu is a blogger for Voices and a First Reader at Polyphony Lit. This post has been updated to reference our new Submittable platform and new editor titles.

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