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Formatting Commentary Is Like Making a Mug… No, Seriously

By Pauline Paranikas and Yong-Yu Huang

Polyphony commentary is almost like a clay mug. There are many different styles and ways to make them, but they all contain the same main elements, or at least they should. Any good mug should include three main components: the bottom, the sides, and the handle. (At least, I think they should. I don’t really know anything about pottery.) Similarly, a good Polyphony comment should include three parts: the comment/criticism, the rationale, and the suggestion. (This part I’m confident in.) But what are these parts, and why do they even matter?

Let’s start with the basics. The comment/criticism is the part that almost everyone includes in their commentary. It’s where you tell the author what you like/dislike about the piece. For example, if the author uses the word “really” in every other line, the criticism would be “You use the word ‘really’ a lot.” Simple, clear, easy. Like I said, this is the bit that one usually has least trouble with. Going back to the strained mug metaphor, the criticism is the base of the mug. It holds everything else up. It’s what you ground all the other parts off of, so this part has to be solid and well thought out. Otherwise, you’re left with a very confused author who cannot, for the life of them, understand what part of their writing you’re against, and a very wobbly mug.

The next part is the rationale. The rationale is when you tell the author why the thing you commented on is good/bad. For example, you might write “Using ‘really’ so frequently dilutes the meaning of the other words you use and sounds redundant.” In my experience, this is the part of the commentary that is neglected the most often. People will write “I don’t like X thing” but fail to explain why. If the author doesn’t understand where your opinion is coming from, they’re less inclined to listen since they might assume it’s a personal opinion. To resolve this, always provide a clear rationale. Think of this as the sides of the mug: without it, the base (criticism) is ineffective. It keeps your beverage of choice—in this case, your criticism—from spilling all over and causing confusion.

The last part of most comments is the suggestion. This is where you tell the author what they should do to fix their terrible mistake that has made you despise the piece with every fiber of your being. Or, in most cases, where you tell the author what slight changes you think would help. In the “really” example, the comment would be something like “I suggest only using the word ‘really’ in one or two select instances to preserve its meaning.” The suggestion is a critical part of the commentary that also gets forgotten a fair bit. Imagine being an author. You’re excited to finally be getting the feedback Polyphony Lit promised you. You log into Submission Manager and… what’s this? You see a barrage of criticism (well-justified criticism, but criticism nonetheless) hurled at you. It’s probably overwhelming and more than a little bit stressful. Seeing suggestions makes everything feel more manageable because you know that there’s a way to fix any criticisms you might agree with. It’s not just a bunch of problems being thrown at you—you receive solutions for them too. In that way, the suggestion is like the handle of a mug. It makes the whole thing functional and easy to use.

These are the essential parts of the classic Polyphony commentary. They are equally important, and the way that they work together is essential. It’s vital to have a clear flow of thought from one part to the next so one can follow your train of thought. Obviously, everyone puts their own spin on the commentary by adding a little more to certain parts and placing more emphasis on one aspect than another, but most of the commentary provided by our editors features these three aspects. I’m pretty sure that if any of us were to pursue a career in ceramics later on in life, we would be able to at least make a passable mug.

Perhaps Polyphony should release mugs as merchandise in the future...

To the potting wheel!

Pauline Paranikas is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Editor-in-Chief at Voices.


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