Editing a Piece You Hate
By Daniel Boyko and Zoha Arif
So, you’re in the mood for something spicy. Something extravagant, a piece in which the English language topples and meshes together and plops some distinct, bold emotion into your soul. You’re looking for something exotically insane that defies the universal law of art. You do not expect Shakespeare or George Orwell or Jane Austen per se, but something fresh and arresting.
And so, after a forwarded email plops onto your Inbox, you tumble onto Submission Manager, load the submission, and perform the first cold read. A few seconds later, you find yourself in complete disbelief at the mechanics and physique of this piece—the poem is riddled with cliché metaphors, enjambments slicing what could be cohesive thoughts into choppy pieces of bread, and ancient tropes populating every crevice.
Sooner or later, we all shuffle upon that piece. When I was a young editor who was interested in nothing more than breathing contemporary literature and peeking at what the coming generation of writing beholds, I was surprised and bamboozled the first time I struggled to find a compliment. Praise just refused to pop into my mind. I’m sure you’ve been in a similar situation too, as have many other editors.
When it comes to editing a piece you hate, the best starting place is to find things you like in the piece to temper your initial hatred. I find that often, when I perform my initial cold reads, I pay no heed to small details or microscopic themes and, instead, search for the general purpose. In doing so, I often find myself glossing over small details that might alter the meaning of the piece as a whole or reveal a cleverness that I may not have acknowledged beforehand. If finding something general to praise is difficult to pinpoint, from diction to word choice to the author’s choice to enjamb a line, try searching for the small details and microscopic themes that you can lounge on. And while it can seem impossible to scavenge things you like in some pieces (to say the very least), it’s kind to at least acknowledge the author’s effort and thought. I find that, with a lot of pieces, my distaste lies with the delivery and mechanics of the piece, not the message. The message is often light and uplifting and so I make sure to acknowledge the positivity of the promoted message.
I believe that one of the most essential things about providing commentary is ensuring that the overall tone is encouraging. A significant amount of authors are sharing their work with the world for the first time, and it’s important that the commentary propels the author to keep honing their art by letting them know that their effort is appreciated and supported. There’s a lot of uncharted, hidden talent out there, and if commentary leaves an author feeling like they have no business trying to write, then that talent unfortunately remains untapped. As such, acting positively on a piece you might hate is vital to both helping you mentally battle the overwhelming emotion of distaste and counterbalancing the constructive critique in your commentary with positive feedback. As a general rule of thumb, I also like to put my commentary aside for a few hours or even a day or two after I’ve completed it. When I return to finalize my commentary after some time has passed, I read it out loud, and this allows me to hear, with fresh ears, overly harsh wording and tone.
I also think that it’s important to consciously keep your intentions and emotions blunt. When I was fresh to the editing party, I didn't realize that, subconsciously, a piece that I viewed as an absolute crash test was being used as a vehicle for self-validation. Subconsciously, I was telling myself, maybe that fiction piece I expunged in frustration last night and that I promised would never see the light of day was not so bad at all when you look at something like this. This type of subconscious institution lifted me on a throne and changed my commentary from an editor’s opinions and suggestions to a holy, godly writer taking the steering wheel of another writer’s work and laying down official laws of what should and shouldn’t be done. Especially for new editors, I stress the importance of constant checks on your subconscious intentions and feelings. Remind yourself that you are on the same level as this author and that your role as an editor is to provide rationalized opinions and suggestions for the author to only consider, not to arbitrarily demand them to change their piece as an iron-willed dictator. (I recommend checking out “Teenage Philosophizing” and “Feedback 101: Compassionate Editing” by Voices for maintaining compassion and keeping your subconscious in check).
Sometimes, with no tangible names or faces attached to a piece, it is easy to forget that every piece is crafted by another human whose personal experiences may not align at all with yours. Specifically, when a piece you hate for its portrayal of a certain group of people, experience, or issue comes along, it’s important to remind yourself of our diverse perspectives. Recently, I came across a very sensitive, personal poem about a person’s journey with self-harm and mental health. The First Reader was frustrated with the way the author illustrated self-harm and wrote harsh, passionate General Commentary explaining how the author’s portrayal of self harm does not align with their personal experience. When you come across such a piece, I propose self-reminders that two humans who experience the same event will do so differently because every human is a unique collection of experiences. While you do not have to agree with the ideas promoted by every piece, it is important that your hatred for the ideas does not translate into bitter or degrading commentary. Writing, as all art, is a form of self-expression, and similarly to how it would be considered inappropriate to degrade a person’s clothing preference, it is inappropriate to degrade an author’s experiences and opinions.
Also, remember who is actually writing this piece that you instantly loathe: a high-schooler. Not a pretentious, professional writer who is trying to hurt you, but one who is simply jumping into the void and experimenting. The fact that someone took the courage, time, and effort to submit a piece should not be overlooked. You might disagree with what’s been written or how a topic has been portrayed or even why there is so little development regarding the narrator you want to root for, but this never warrants cold-blooded, relentless commentary that feels as if you’re grabbing a red pen and slashing a piece to shreds. Nobody wants their piece to be completely picked apart, criticized, ridiculed, and told that it is just plain bad. A rejection with positive feedback is hard enough; there’s no need to attack the writer with more cruelty. If you have ever submitted any of your written work before, I’m sure you understand how devastating that first rejection letter can be and so can the second, third, and the others that follow. In fact, it almost becomes easy to want to give up, slam your computer against the ground, sprint outside, scream and yell in the shower, and completely forget about that dumb idea you had of submitting a written work. I’ve been there, and chances are you have too. There is almost nothing easy about writing a piece, and when commentary lacks any support, it becomes all the more challenging to repeat the process.
Think of this as the high schooler you’re writing to: the author who just decided to do Running of the Bulls in Pamplona but has an untied shoelace. They don’t want to fall, they don’t want to be trampled, and they certainly don’t want to be run over with criticism, and at the end of the day, neither do you. As cool as being on a throne as the Lord of Writing may sound (doesn’t it have a nice ring to it?), you ultimately want to help that person tie their shoelace.
Even if you think that there’s nothing “good” about the piece, that it feels like a punishment to just glance at it, chances are you can still find one focal point that was (at the very least) somewhat successful. Was it the message? What the writer wanted to accomplish? Or was there one really good snippet of imagery that shines like the perfect puppy amongst a litter? That’s usually something I look for in a piece I dislike, and as much as I might dislike what is ultimately achieved, there is almost always a single line that stands out for its composure, ability to speak with a voice, or is just an overall vibrant detail that the piece needs more of. For me, that one detail is what I try to emphasize and focus on, and instead of using my General Commentary as a way to explore every way the piece went wrong (because there might be so, so many ways), I try to approach it as a way to examine how to make the rest of the piece similar to what was effective. Whether that means being more specific, providing more details, or being more concise with diction, all it takes is a single phrase to work with, and sure enough, you’ll find that the piece you hate has more to offer than you expected.
My best piece of advice for editing a piece you hate is to constantly and actively search for positives and to keep your subconscious ego in check. As long as you strive to understand that this isn’t the time to be a capricious, mercurial tyrant, and remember that the person writing is just a high schooler, much like yourself, you can be encouraging and guide that writer participating in Running of the Bulls. You might even learn to (mostly) enjoy editing that piece you hate…
What about you? How do you approach a piece you hate? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Blog Contributor Liaison of Voices.
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.