Editing a Piece in a Style/Genre You're Unfamiliar With
By Hannah Ramsey, Daniel Boyko, Kate Jeong, and Suhanee Mitragotri
Billy Lombardo has forwarded you the submission "xxx” by [blind]. Please visit https://www.plitsubmissions.org to log in and check your forwarded submissions.
holes engraved. with a glaring edged knife.
(sharpened. fine point.)
through the cutting. my limbs.
Instructions. For impalement.
soaked net. intertwined.
cloth. restricted. stretched.
the stagnant sludge. is fatal.
When it conjoins. to. the bands.
and deep holes.
Of a caudate type. It expels.
scaly outside bands.
our tickers. sink.
forms. silence. quiet.
the blade. Grins.
gashes. from metal.
it creates. empty. expanses.
of the punctured. Leg. Incomplete.
it hangs, hangs.
as the cut runs deep.
(this submission was written for the purpose of this post—if you submit to Polyphony Lit we won’t put your work on the blog)
Suppose you are forwarded this submission. Your initial reaction to this piece may be to a) storm away in frustration, b) slam your computer and scream, c) go to your trusty friend Google for advice, or d) all of the above and quit poetry forever. I mean, c’mon—does this person even know what a period is for? Fortunately for you, our team has compiled a few tips that can help you navigate even the most unpredictable of submissions.
Importance of Researching
Oftentimes, you may receive a submission in a style you just haven’t ever seen before. It may seem daunting to think of how you are to give constructive criticism and feedback on such pieces, but there are always solutions. One obvious way is to research what outline the literary piece is utilizing—approach every piece with the notion that the writer was purposeful in their decisions. Asking yourself questions is another no-brainer. What format is the piece written in? What is the main theme or message the author is trying to convey? Is there a specific pattern throughout the writing that is noticeable? With questions, you can self-reflect more clearly in your mind what piece you are trying to unravel.
Remember: no one’s an expert in every genre of writing, not even your faithful bloggers here. Don’t be afraid of letting Google, other search engines, and literary resources be a close friend—they contain really useful knowledge that can easily facilitate the editing process. As writers, our arsenal of literary knowledge should always be growing, and whether that means learning about sestinas, colloquialism, or even an epizeuxis, it’s okay to admit and embrace how we don’t know everything. I certainly don’t. I mean, c’mon—when was the last time you heard epizeuxis in an everyday conversation?
Rereading a Piece for Understanding
Regardless of whether or not a piece is in an unfamiliar style/genre, it’s almost always a good idea to reread it a couple of times. You may find that you become more comfortable with the piece. Understand that editing is a learning process for the editor. It’s okay to struggle with pieces that you are unfamiliar with, but it is important to make a valiant effort to understand what the writer is trying to convey in the piece. By having a positive and optimistic mindset, you have climbed one rung higher on the ladder of editing.
If you are editing a piece and are having trouble identifying the theme of the piece, try mentioning in your General Commentary what you think the main message is. It is completely fine if the message you identified is different than the one the writer intended to communicate because, now, the writer knows that their theme is not being conveyed clearly.
Stating your Interpretation or Assumption of a Piece’s Meaning
Reading an abstract poem like caudate autopsy. is probably one of the few types of submissions that can actually make editors nervous. As in, really nervous. It’s not the bane of our existence, like a five-page collage of typos that sets off your grammar-police alarm, but it’s pretty close. In fact, it’s one of the rare occasions in reading/writing where reading in between the lines is a necessity. Not for analysis of the writer’s mindset and personality, but to double check your understanding of the piece.
And that’s what’s scary. You don’t know whether or not the piece is too metaphorical and unclear or you’re just misreading and going crazy. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all reread and frantically re-reread as a way to come close to grasping whatever the writer or poet is attempting to convey. Whether it’s a piece about self-harm or a biology class dissection, spring flowers or destructive relationships, it’s often a mind-boggling experience that makes you wonder, Does anyone know what this piece is about?
But it doesn’t have to be this way. When a piece like this pops onto your docket, one of the first things I personally do to decipher its meaning is to try reading in between the lines.
Literally, this means looking for the implications of a piece: what it’s suggesting implicitly instead of what it’s stating explicitly. It’s often helpful to see if there are any underlying themes, especially in regard to connections in imagery or details (like if a poem hammers in a certain idea) and patterns (such as repeated or common usage of syntax and literary devices). If there are repetitions that feel very deliberate and purposeful, then chances are that they are. For instance, the usage of periods—no matter how unorthodox it may seem—is very, very purposeful in the poem above; these periods are used to both add a jarring sense to the poem (which is perhaps representative of how the subject feels) and allow it to read like a list of scientific instructions and scientific observations broken down into simple steps or remarks (such as “Instructions.” and “For impalement.,” “restricted.” and “stretched.,” and “Leg.” and “Incomplete.”).
However, it’s important to realize that reading in between the lines doesn’t work for every piece. Sometimes a piece is being literal or extremely unclear when you think otherwise.
If reading in between the lines only gets you so far, then you simply have to trust your own judgement. It’s best to stick to your gut instinct; if you initially read a piece and find your expectations completely challenged after reading it a second time, then by all means follow what you personally think is “right.” There may not necessarily be a “correct” answer, especially when it’s heavily steeped in metaphor, but attempt to understand the writing or poetry in whatever way makes sense for you. Even if fellow editors came up with different interpretations, that’s perfectly fine. Just be sure to both mention your slight difficulties in comprehending the piece in your Rationale for Accept or Reject and potentially mention it to the writer in the General Commentary. Also, don’t feel the need to shy away from admitting you were slightly confused about the entire ending. It doesn’t make you a bad editor, it just means that the piece desperately needs some clarification. And the writer or poet, out of all people, needs to be made aware of this—through a gentle tone, of course.
Fragility of Tone
Speaking of tone, this aspect of your commentary should be paid special attention to. Using a constructive, polite tone should be the status quo. However, when you are stating your interpretation of a piece’s meaning, the way you speak with the author takes on a new importance. This is because it critically determines how likely they are to take the time to listen to your comments.
Unlike editing for punctuation mishaps, awkward syntax, or plot holes, editing for a submission’s underlying meaning is very personal. I mean, think about it. The message the writer is attempting to convey to their audience strongly correlates with the reason why they wrote the piece in the first place. When you are questioning the work’s meaning, it’s important to know that you are asking about much more than the sensibility of the plot or the connotation behind a segment of dialogue. You are questioning the validity of their purpose in writing the story. In doing this, you want to portray an attitude of curiosity and neutrality (i.e. you aren’t biased—even if you are—toward your own beliefs or thoughts on the subject) when covering the part of the submission that confuses you. As an editor, you are not expected to accurately pinpoint an ambiguous piece’s meaning. What you are expected to do is offer a helping hand to the author so that they can successfully complete the story they set out to create. Remember that the goal isn’t to tell the author that you don’t understand. Rather, you are demonstrating your willingness to understand.
Some ways you can go about doing this are asking the writer questions on parts that come off as unclear and encouraging them to dig deeper in scenes that may have been glossed over. All the while, you want to aim for a tone that is conversational yet attentive because it allows your commentary to come off as non-judgemental while highlighting that you are open to learning from the author.
For example, suppose you read the line “through the cutting. my limbs.” (S1, L3) from the poem above. As you read, the familiar hesitancy that comes with incomprehension starts to sink in. You were sure the poem was detailing the dissection of an animal, but if that is the case, why does the poet write “my limbs.”?
Instead of doubting your capabilities as an editor, you need to first admit that you don’t fully understand and that it’s okay. Next, you can verbalize your confusion in a way that is respectful of the author’s current word choice, while also compelling them to look back and consider if adjustments are needed for clarity. You might pose a question like this: “I admire the brevity of this line’s syntax as well as the caesura that’s created with the unanticipated punctuation. However, I was led to believe that this poem was discussing the dissection of some sort of “caudate”-like creature, so it’s not clear to me why you write “my limbs.” in this line. Are you implying that the cuts inflicted on the animal also cause you pain? Is this pain physical or emotional? Literal or figurative?”
Wrapping it Up
All in all, editing pieces in styles or genres you’re unfamiliar with is no easy task. As shown by caudate autopsy., some pieces can be intimidating at first glance—with extravagant and unconventional punctuation that consists of asterisks, colons, semicolons, dashes (of every possible variety), and even underscores, not to mention ancient writing styles and linguistic techniques, it sometimes feels like climbing a mountain of literary challenges. This post can’t guarantee (as much as I would love for it to) that you won’t occasionally be frustrated, that you won’t occasionally want to get into a heated argument with the writer, but it can at least try to facilitate the process. And hey, that’s something, right? Best of luck in your future endeavors and, as per usual, happy editing! And please, no throwing of the computer…
Kate Jeong is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Hannah Ramsey is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Daniel Boyko is a Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Suhanee Mitragotri is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.