Editing a Perfect Piece
By Lara Katz
If we’re being honest about it, there are three types of Polyphony submissions: submissions that are so terrible it’s hard to find something good to say, pieces that are so good it’s impossible to critique them, and pieces that are somewhere in between.
The vast majority of submissions fall into the latter category, and this category is also the easiest to handle—partially because we’re more used to seeing them, and partially because we can avoid sounding overly complimentary or unnecessarily deprecatory without too much effort. Editing a piece that is not especially redeemable is much more difficult—but even still, at least the editor has lots of fodder to work with.
But what if you don’t have anything to say about a piece? What if it’s just… simply… perfect? What then?
Let’s get some definitions on the table:
Edit (verb): prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.
Perfect (adjective): having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics; as good as it is possible to be; absolute; complete (used for emphasis).
(Thanks, Oxford American.)
From a purely definitional perspective, these two words are not even compatible in the same sentence. If to “edit” is to change in order to fulfill publication requirements, and to be “perfect” is to fulfill all requirements, then how can one possibly edit a perfect piece?
But we’re Polyphony editors. Surely we can get around a few definitions…
So without further ado, my top three tips to successfully write a Polyphony commentary on a “perfect piece.”
1. Give Compliments.
When a piece is perfect, presumably you’ve got plenty to compliment. You don’t want to go overboard, but never be shy to offer positive feedback in your commentary. Telling an author what’s working can be as helpful as telling them what isn’t—after all, even if the piece you’re reading is absolutely perfect, it’s likely not everything the author has written or will write will be quite as perfect. Therefore, knowing that the concrete details used in this poem (which might not have been in another poem) are incredibly effective is very useful to the author. Knowing that the plot was paced really smoothly in this particular story could help the author pace another story smoothly. The author will be armed with some extremely useful advice and direction for the future—maybe they’ll even write another perfect piece thanks to you, you never know.
And remember: if you truly feel a piece is perfect, don't feel pressure to leave criticism as well as compliments. After all, why make changes when none need to be made? It's simply not necessary. Polite honesty, as well as simplicity, are usually the best policies to follow in a commentary.
2. Ask Questions.
Never be shy to ask questions, rhetorical and otherwise, in a commentary. If you’re reading a creative nonfiction piece, you can ask what the author was thinking at a particular moment. If you’re reading a piece that has a similar style or subject matter to a piece of literature you enjoy, you can ask the author if they were inspired by this piece or author. If you think the piece is written in a particular style or form but you’re not familiar enough with said form to make a determination, you can ask the author if this was intentional—for example, you might read a poem that sounds like a ghazal, but you’re not sure if it is one, or you might think a story is playing with impressionist themes, but aren’t clear if this was deliberate. It’s a way to engage with the author on a personal level, give them reading recommendations in a respectful way, and think more broadly about the piece’s style. A piece doesn’t have to be imperfect for you to have questions.
3. Offer Interpretations.
This one is my favorite of the three here, because, at least from my perspective, it can greatly enhance any Polyphony commentary. For an author, knowing what the reader thinks the piece is about, what the message is if it has one, and what the piece’s purpose is, is so important. If you’ve written a story about your moth-eaten shower curtain and all your readers come sobbing to you about how beautiful this memoir of your mother’s death is, you might want to think seriously about your writing approach (but keep the piece! It sounds like it was pretty heart-rending). After all, a piece that is perfect to you might not be to another reader, and this might be down to interpretation alone. For an author to understand how the readers read the piece can provide a guide for how to communicate just as (if not more) successfully in the future.
So those are my three tips for how to edit a perfect piece! Take what you will and don’t be afraid to shoot me an email to correct anything I’ve said.
Lara Katz is an Editor-in-Chief of Polyphony Lit a blogger for Voices.