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Feedback 101: Compassionate Editing

Updated: May 19, 2021

Have you ever worried that you were being too harsh with your commentary? Three Polyphony editors are here to help.


One of the most commonly voiced concerns of readers and editors is how to edit compassionately. At Polyphony Lit, we pride ourselves in our rich, detailed feedback to every submitting author. But when we are digging into a piece, combing through it and considering how it can be its very best, how do we ensure that the feedback we craft communicates our respect for the submitting author and their work? Three experienced members of the Polyphony Lit staff weigh in their advice.

Kelly, Executive Editor

DON’T: Use the phrase “I would change”

Sorry to spoil the anonymous nature of feedback to previous editors, but if you’ve ever gotten essay length feedback with too many parentheses that mentioned the phrase “I would,” it was probably written by me. Out of all of the phrases in the Polyphony editor’s vocabulary, this may be the most accidentally dangerous.

Unlike its sister, “Change this,” its cousin, “Fix this,” or its weird-family-friend-who-everyone-calls-uncle-but-isn’t-actually-related-but-shows-up-to-eat-pumpkin-pie-anyways, “This is a mess. Did you even proofread?”, “I would change” has the aura of politeness. It seems like it’s a nice way of putting things. You’re not commanding the author to, “Change this immediately before I start crying about your violation of the Oxford comma.” You’re ~politely~ saying, “Oh! Hello there! I would change that if I were you.” It seems nice, right? Wrong.

To me, comments like, “I would add a comma here” are condescending. The phrase “I would change” makes it seem like you’re saying that you would’ve done a better job if you had written the piece yourself. You’re implying that you know so much more than the author, which is the exact opposite of the whole concept of Polyphony. We’re peer editors, all learning about writing together.

Even if you still do subconsciously think that you may have done a better job if you had written the piece, you didn’t write the piece. The author wrote it. By interjecting comments that place the focus on you as the editor instead of the author, you’re taking away some of the author’s agency. The one making the changes, ultimately, is not you but the author. Saying “I would change” doesn’t help the author make the change themselves.

But, writing from the “I perspective” can be the most compassionate way to word comments. Phrases like “I think” and “in my opinion” can be the best to use when talking about something as subjective as writing; they establish that you are giving an opinion and not fact. Even comments that are worded with “I would recommend” or “I would suggest” are completely appropriate. It’s only an issue when it becomes something more like “I would change” -- when it becomes a comment that might make the author feel like somebody else would’ve done a better job of sharing their story.

Pauline, Executive Editor

DO: Strive for balance

I agree that using “would” can come off as condescending. I’ve struggled with compassionate editing A LOT and I’m still working on sounding more compassionate. What helps me the most is imagining myself in the author’s position. They’ve put blood, sweat, and tears (figuratively and probably literally) into the piece. Harshly worded feedback can feel like an invalidation of their efforts and it also just makes them sad. What’s helped me the most is to vent all my frustrations with a piece in my original notes that I scribble on the paper. When I’m typing them up, I take out all the judgment and explain what I think should change, why I think the author should change it, and how I think they should change it. If it still sounds a little bit harsh or commanding, I add in an “in my opinion” or “I think.”

If I feel like I’m giving an overwhelming amount of negative commentary, I try to focus on the most important instances and balance it out with positive commentary. My goal for every piece is to have at the very least one (usually more, but it varies based on the length and quality of the piece) positive specific comment. I also try to have about a quarter of my general commentary be positive.

Emanne, Genre Editor

DO: Engage with the heart and soul of a piece

I believe that the foundation of compassion is respect, and that carries over into our duties as readers and editors. Equally as important as the language that we use when we engage with a submission is how we choose to engage with it.

As I’ve moved up the Polyphony ranks to the point where I’m lucky enough to read the comments of Junior Editors on a regular basis, I’ve come to realize how important it is to address all aspects of a piece in our commentary. As a Genre Editor, part of my role is to “fill in the gaps” left by the Junior Editors, and I have noticed that one of the most common gaps that is frequently overlooked (most of us are guilty of this!) in commentary is a solid engagement with ALL aspects of a piece.

Too often I read commentary that, while very thorough and detailed, is focused primarily on picking out grammar mistakes or spelling errors. While errors in the grammar and mechanics of a piece are often the first to jump to our eyes, I recommend reading through a piece in its entirety before making any comments. Once you have read through it, take a moment to think about how the piece made you feel before you dig into the nitty-gritty. If you find yourself tempted to start out with a comment on that one unnecessary comma or that run-on sentence, think first about the more “qualitative” aspects of the piece: literary devices, imagery, pacing, and tone are just a few. Tackle the big picture, and then zoom into those mechanical errors.

The aforementioned “qualitative” components of writing all work together to build the piece’s overarching so what? We fail to demonstrate our respect for a piece if we fail to consider what the author is trying to tell us, what message they are attempting to deliver with their words. Virginia Woolf once said that “every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written largely in his works,” and I couldn’t agree more. After you part with a piece of writing, you will not hold onto the grammar, or the spelling, but you will remember the message.

Oftentimes, crafting thoughtful commentary about plot, message, and themes is difficult. However, it is an essential part of compassionate editing. The most compassionate act of a reader or editor is to believe that the author has an intention in writing their piece and to make an attempt to decipher that intention before helping the author sharpen and clarify it. If, after several read-throughs of a piece, you still have no idea what message the author is attempting to convey, consider where and how their voice is getting lost. Is it in muddled details? An inconsistent plot? An overly abrupt ending? Our job is not to suggest that the author edit their piece in a way that reflects what we think should be the theme or final takeaway, but rather to find their already-present voice within the piece and bring it to the forefront. The author’s voice can be elevated in multiple ways, but it is most effectively carried through in details, dialogue, description, and pace/sequencing of events.

Remember, there is a face behind the words on your screen! Compassionate editing is about our respect for the piece, and in order to show the author that we respect their work, we must look beyond surface-level errors to address the heart and soul of the writing, for it reflects the heart and soul of the writer.

This post has been updated to reflect our new Polyphony Lit name and changes in editor roles.

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