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Efficiently Editing Really Long/Short Pieces

By Daniel Boyko, Yong-Yu Huang, and Lara Katz

Billy Lombardo has forwarded you the submission "xxx” by [blind]. Please visit https://www.plitsubmissions.org to log in and check your forwarded submissions.


The doc downloads, expands into full-screen. You squint—doubting your eyesight. Is that really all there is to this piece? Three lines of poetry, and Polyphony expects you to generate commentary on that? They’ve got to be joking.


But, fear not, you think to yourself. You remember a post you read just a few days ago on the Voices! Blog, the one with that mouthful of a name. What was it again? Something about efficiency. And editing. You hope that it wasn’t just something you imagined. Please don’t tell me that I hallucinated reading that. Maybe this sleep deprivation thing is really getting to me.


You scroll through your Internet history, passing through your latest Google searches for synonyms of figurative language, and aha!⁠—you’ve found the post, long name and all.


For short pieces:


Comment frequently!


Writing generally benefits from purposeful language. In my opinion, the shorter the piece, the more this phenomenon is magnified. In a haiku, for example, if just one syllable is wrong, the whole poem could fall apart. As a result, I think that it’s safe to assume that everything in a short piece must be there for a reason.


I believe the best strategy in the scenario that you’re editing a very short piece, then, is to comment more heavily than you usually do. If even one word feels off to you, it’s probably worth bringing up. If just one little syllable is really strong, despite its smallness, I think the author deserves a compliment for it. On short pieces, don’t hold back!


Include your reactions!


I believe that one of the most valuable things an editor can provide to the author is their reaction to the piece. How does each line make you feel? Does the plot surprise you, bore you, confuse you, etc? You can let these reactions become a sort of blow-by-blow interpretation for the author. If you found a sentence calming, for example, but the author intended for it to be disturbing, then voice your interpretation. And if an author was uncertain about the effectiveness of their suspenseful introduction, your response might be able to reassure them.


No fluffing!


Similarly, it’s important to realize that even if every line is purposeful and deliberate, a short piece can only warrant so much commentary. Yes, elaborately detailing your thoughts is important—perhaps more so in a piece with relatively few lines—but there is only so much you can write. If there aren’t things to talk about, then don’t try to unnecessarily beef up your commentary to make it longer, chunkier, and seemingly more substantial. No one likes repetition or being superfluous with empty words (as I’m sure some of us have learned the hard way). Concision carries more significance than a jumble of sprawling commentary, and while giving the author an essay’s worth of feedback is theoretically beneficial, make sure every snippet of commentary you provide packs a punch. Much like how we, as editors, try to help writers condense their writing and make it as crisp as possible, try to apply the same logic to your commentary. If there isn’t much to write about, then feel free to not.

Whew. You finally get through reading the entire section on short pieces, maybe scroll up and down to check your favorite lines once more, and think you’ve got the arsenal of tools necessary to handle the piece. Forwarding the submission just a day or two later, it seems like a mission accomplished. Until this happens…


Billy Lombardo has forwarded you the submission "xxx” by [blind]. Please visit https://www.plitsubmissions.org to log in and check your forwarded submissions.


The doc takes a minute to download, then pops up. You stretch in anticipation, half-expecting to see another piece with three lines. And then you start scrolling. Is this piece even in the word count? Five dense pages of fiction, and Polyphony expects you to work your way through all of that?


But, as you think of the hours you’ll need to spend on just the Specific Commentary alone, you remember that the Voices! Blog post has a second half…


For long pieces:


Read through the submission in its entirety before you begin!


I cannot stress enough how important it is to actually fully read a piece before starting the commentary. As someone who would initially do the Specific Commentary during a first read, I can personally cite how much easier doing commentary is after you have read the piece at least once if not more. Especially for a longer piece, it’s not that uncommon for certain details or examples of imagery to either be referenced later on or come up multiple times. Not reading the piece all the way through before starting prevents you from ever getting a sense of what you’re working with—an abstract, metaphorical piece that utilizes surrealism or a grounded piece chained by realism—and it’s just a disservice to yourself. In fact, writing commentary becomes more of a tedious task than a passion. And when you realize that you missed a key detail reading the first time, which affects your entire interpretation of the piece and causes you to redo part, if not all, of your commentary, it almost makes you feel like you’re doing homework twice. By reading a piece before starting the commentary, not only do you save yourself time (yay free time), but your commentary is subsequently better able to emphasize what matters most—a win-win for everyone.


Consistent comment density!


One thing I notice editors frequently struggle with on longer pieces is consistent comment density in their specific commentary. This point follows up on the above—when an editor first begins commenting on a submission, they might do so very heavily, but then lose gas as they struggle into the fourth page, especially if the submission requires more critical feedback than most. As a result, I think it's important to pace yourself: for example, if a poem is forty lines, don't comment on every line in the first stanza. Let's just say, hypothetically, you want to write twelve specific comments. If there are six stanzas in the poem, each of roughly equal length, then it makes the most sense that you'd have two comments per stanza. Of course, you might end up with only one comment on the third stanza and three comments on the fourth. As the editor, it's important to do whatever a piece demands of you, and maybe that fourth stanza was really exceptional in a way that the third wasn't. Still, it's important to bear in mind that the submission is a cohesive whole, and that while you don't have unlimited attention, the whole piece does deserve some attention.


Go for the highlights!


Additionally, when you’re writing commentary, especially for the Specific Commentary, don’t burden yourself with making a remark about every. single. detail. Some components of a piece are simply more important than others, and while it’s great to give thorough feedback that helps the writer on every facet of their submission, there is such a thing as going overboard. As editors, our goal is to help writers receive meaningful feedback that will improve their piece and craft. But that absolutely doesn’t mean commenting on every little thing. If a piece is five pages long, that doesn’t mean you need to do five times the amount of commentary. You can obviously do a longer commentary than you would for a haiku, but try to be reasonable. Aim for the highlights. What details and descriptions really carry substance, and how might tweaking these qualities drastically alter the piece? Carefully choose the details that specifically stand out to you and provide powerful feedback to go along with them. Especially for something like writing, quality versus quantity is almost always a go-to way of thinking. Just because something is longer doesn’t mean it's better, and oftentimes, (I apologize for the cliché) less is more. Honing in on what really matters for a submission is so, so much better than using the write-about-everything-and-hope-it-helps approach. Not only does it ensure that your time is being spent on sound commentary, but it also allows your thoughts to become more concise and effective.


Don't just proofread the submission!


It can be time-consuming, not to mention boring, to become an author’s proofreader. And yet I’ve read so many commentaries in which the editor tries to point out every grammatical error. The truth is, this isn’t actually all that helpful in helping someone grow as a writer. If Sylvia Plath decided to submit to Polyphony, but couldn’t spell to save her life, or Pablo Neruda sent us a poem with inexplicably bad punctuation, it would still be really good poetry. And let’s be honest, flawless dialogue tags do not make Twilight literature.


From my perspective, typos should only be pointed out individually if there are very few of them. If it appears the author did proofread their piece and it’s generally error-free, but you notice one comma splice and one instance of the wrong “their,” then you can safely conclude that they made a couple mistakes and weren’t aware these errors were present. As a result, it’s useful to point them out. However, if nine out of ten sentences are run-ons, the author can’t spell words longer than four letters, and the tense flip-flops every couple of paragraphs, then it feels equally safe to assume that no proofreading or spell-checking was employed and the author did not particularly care to make sure the piece was error-free. As a result, the thoughtful and time-consuming efforts you put towards finding every misplaced comma will likely fall on deaf ears. Instead, I believe that the best policy is to make a blanket statement in the General Commentary that the author should check their submission over carefully for errors.


(And if you notice your commentaries frequently devote significant space to grammatical errors, then maybe this is a good time to rethink the value of what you’re providing the author. In order to truly help an author grow and improve their piece, it’s important to comment on not just typos but also the story’s voice, plot, message, word choice, interpretations, etc.)


Pay special attention to the beginning and the end!


As I’m sure many of you have learned (especially if you’ve tried writing), the first line of any piece matters. It should draw, engage, and consume the reader’s attention. All with just either a single line or a single sentence. It’s almost never easy, and often the scariest part of writing is a blank page. Thus, it is almost always a good idea to comment something at the beginning of the piece, even if it isn’t necessarily the first sentence or line. This is when the audience first interacts with a piece, and if this first moment or section of the piece isn’t effective, the writer needs to be made aware. Perhaps the author tried to provoke an immediate sense of suspense, but if you came away feeling uninterested or even yawning, let the author know (in much, much gentler terms) how you felt and express how it could be made more effective. Was a character’s introduction confusing or misleading? Does the beginning effectively dive into the plot, or does it waste time and feel excessively wordy? These are the types of questions you should try to answer, and the start of a piece is very reliable to have a point of discussion.


The same goes for the ending. In a similar vein to how the start of a piece is your first interaction, then the end of the piece is your last and often what should linger with you the most. A piece’s conclusion and final lines/sentences should be memorable for the right reasons. Provide the writer commentary on if this was the case or not. Do you feel all loose ends were tied up nicely? Or do you still have questions that deserve to be answered? If every line in the piece is as beautiful as Richard Wright’s rhetoric but the end feels hollow, then inform the reader that you wish some of the gorgeous imagery and stirring ideas introduced earlier are also made prevalent towards the end.


Wrapping it all up


Editing pieces that don't quite fit into the boxes we are used to can be hard—and different editors take on this issue in different ways; put another way, many voices will give many responses to the same singular challenge. None of these sections are meant to be prescriptive (okay, maybe hold the fluffing!), but rather to serve as guides to help you navigate the editing conundrums your literary future doubtlessly holds. Good luck, and, as always, happy editing!

Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Blog Contributor Liaison of Voices.


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


Lara Katz is the Editor-in-Chief of Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.