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Editing a Piece That Seems Really Personal

By Daniel Boyko, Yong-Yu Huang, and Zoha Arif


March 24, 2020.

A wild Tuesday. Scattered rain. Afternoon: mildly cloudy. I wish for the sun.

Dear dearest Journal,

The kimchi I had for lunch was a bit too salted, but I was feeling quite famished, so I consumed the thing without commenting on the uncomfortable salt concentration.

I’ve grown of tired of that experimental indie song; I said that I jammed to hardcore last week.

A pressing dilemma has shown itself: I was forwarded another submission yesterday for Polyphony. I skimmed through it once, and now it’s minimized on my desktop. Overall, the piece is a bit rough, with typos plopped here and there, a few choppy sentences, a generous reliance on telling instead of showing, and I wish that there were more creative devices used to enhance the visual experience for the reader. What strikes me about this piece, however, is that it seems to be pretty personal. I can’t imagine enduring what the author describes, and I don’t want to make the author feel as if they’re entire life story is being belittled or that their piece is dry in its current form by providing detailed editorial commentary.

I hope I won’t come across as too harsh… Some part of me feels like the writer shared a vulnerable part of themselves, and now I’m attacking that vulnerability. Who am I to take this delicate, significant story and say it’s not good enough? That it doesn’t deserve to be accepted? I almost feel like I’m telling the writer that their story isn’t memorable enough, that their endurance wasn’t tough enough. I’m sure that’s not something anyone wants to hear—that their family story doesn’t have enough substance. I don’t even know where to start with this piece. I feel like I’m the last person playing a game of Jenga… Everyone’s watching me, staring at me, knowing that there’s no good piece to take out, and I just don’t know where to start with this tower that could topple over at any moment. I don’t want to have to clean up the mess, but I keep thinking that I’m making a mess no matter what. It’s all so fragile.

I know that I promised myself that I would disintegrate my procrastination tendencies and get better at forcing myself to sit and work, but I’ve been expertly running away from this all day.

On another note, did you know that butterflies taste with their hind feet? I didn’t either until 47 minutes ago. Eating walnuts and raisins in the morning has been a refreshing change. I’ve been doing quite well with keeping a ten foot distance from my phone in the morning to ban myself from checking it first thing.

March 25, 2020.

A ripe wednesday. Partly cloudy. Lower 50s. Light and variable wind.

Dear dearest Journal,

I meticulously constructed a doodle of a black forest gateau with the crispiest cherries during pre-calc, and now I can’t seem to locate the masterpiece.

I’ve realized that I use too many emojis when I text people. So instead I have substituted :) and :\ and :( to express the three fundamental emotions of the human being.

Update on the dilemma: I forced myself to roll over to the fluffy beanbag and make progress on the submission. I sat, opened a Google doc, wrote the appropriate headings, held an unofficial staring contest with the piece, and at the top-half of 20 minutes, felt utterly reluctant to begin. I realized that this beanbag session was not making any seismic shifts, so I decided to hit up good ol’ Patricia. And Patricia, my savior, my exemplar, my life crises liberator, shared a good chat with me and provided a few good pointers.

For notes:

In the general commentary, I made sure to begin by telling the author that their persistence through hardships and struggles was a testament to their internal strength and mental resilience and inspired me in some way. I didn’t feel as though any of my life experiences allowed me to say that I could connect to this piece profoundly, so instead, I added that the new perspectives the piece illuminated were important to talk about. I emphasized that this is a strong piece and that I liked the direction it was going in. I then eased into addressing the general areas that I felt needed a bit of work, being extra generous with my use of “I feel” and “I think” to emphasize to the author that these are simply my opinions on what can be improved.

I also then read my commentary out loud a few times to ensure that the overall tone of the commentary was positive and encouraging. I made sure to sprinkle a bit of positive commentary on the content of the piece throughout, especially in between constructive criticism, to remind the author that it wasn’t their story that I felt needed improvement but the execution of its telling.

Patricia also made me realize that no matter how positive and encouraging I was, constructive criticism and editing suggestions would always feel somewhat personal. There is no way to reject someone without at least slightly hurting them. The best I can do is hope that after the initial sting, the author reads through my commentary openly, feels empowered in their writing abilities by my positive commentary, takes whatever constructive commentary they feel has reason to it, and uses it to improve their piece. As long as I feel that I am writing this commentary to help another writer, then I can rest assured that I am doing what I have been tasked to do.

March 26, 2020.

Happy Fake FriYay. Isolated winds. Mostly Clear.

Dear dearest Journal,

I proofread my commentary again. I added a few sentences emphasizing to the author that I could really tell how important the subject was to them. The way they wrote made it clear that they had an emotional connection with their piece, and I wanted to acknowledge that and the amount of effort they put into it.

It’s Friday, and thus I spent about two hours on Minecraft, spent another few hours finishing the Kristin Cashore book I started a few days ago, and attempted to bake Swiss rolls. It was a chill day, and now, I’m quite famished, so I shall cut this day’s entry short. Till next time…


Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

Yong-Yu Huang is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.

Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.

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