Dear First Readers:
By Pauline Paranikas
As an executive editor, I spend most of my time on any given submission editing previous editors’ comments and writing feedback to those editors. Lately, I’ve been noticing some recurring issues with feedback from editors across the spectrum, so I thought I’d address it on the blog as a shout into the void that might stop some unsuspecting reader from making this mistake. For this post, I’m going to focus on one of the most prolific issues I’ve seen: the specific commentary that is solely focused on hunting down every grammatical error in the piece.
I think part of the reason this is such a common phenomenon is that when faced with a piece that makes zero sense to you, it’s intuitive to start with something you understand: grammar. That being said, an over-reliance on grammatical errors in the specific commentary is problematic for several reasons.
Imagine seeing commentary that’s just a list of every comma error you’ve ever made. It’s discouraging, overwhelming, and, frankly, boring.
As the author revises and changes their piece, the grammatical structures will change and the feedback you’ve given will be ultimately useless.
In poetry (and in some short fiction), the author doesn’t need to have perfect grammar. If they’re breaking the rules of syntax to make a point or to make their piece flow better, then correcting their grammar doesn’t do anything to help them improve because that’s not the point of the poem!
So how do we get past this? How do you transition from a specific commentary entirely about grammar to something more substantial?
In my opinion, one of the best places to start is with word choice. No matter what genre the author is writing, they have to use words, and they have to choose those words carefully. Read the piece out loud. Do any words sound funky (not '80s jam funky, more like “that rotten fish smells funky”)? Tell the author that you think their word choice isn’t great in that spot and explain why you think that.
Another easy way to find things to comment on is to discuss concision. Very few writers have mastered the art of boiling their writing down to the most essential parts. (Like me, for example. This post was supposed to be a paragraph and a half, but I got carried away.) In that event, write a comment telling the author “this sentence is unnecessarily long and because of that I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Finally, if you get confused by the meaning, tell the author! They want to know what it is about their poem that’s difficult to understand so that they can clarify their point. I assure you, one comment saying “I have no clue what this line means and how it fits into the poem as a whole” is infinitely more helpful than “this comma is in the wrong place.”
Pauline Paranikas is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Assistant Editor-in-Chief at Voices.