By Daniel Boyko and Pauline Paranikas
One of the biggest parts of being a Genre Editor is providing feedback to previous editors. Writing that feedback almost feels like sitting on a porch as an old man, complaining about how kids these days behave themselves in their writing. If you’ve ever received an email from Billy with feedback from other editors, then been subjected to a paragraph long rant about an oddly specific issue with your commentary, you know what I’m talking about. We’re Genre Editors, we see a lot of commentary, and we have pet peeves that pop up a lot. This is our attempt to shout into the void and get people to understand our frustrations.
Assuming the Author’s Intent
Of all my pet peeves, this is easily the biggest because it doesn’t just affect me (by driving me up the wall), it also affects the author.
Before I pop off, a brief disclaimer: we are editors. The very nature of our work is to make a piece better. It is possible that you are editing because you think you are better at writing than most authors. This is called hubris. As soon as you assume you are better at writing than the author, you lose sight of the fact that your role is not to take over for the author but to suggest ideas that you think would contribute to a better piece. Disclaimer over.
I see some of our readers giving feedback that boils down to “you, in your infinite stupidity, have made a horrible error, that I know is wrong because I am a galaxy brain genius.”
Okay, maybe it’s not that bad. More often, it’s something like “you use the same word twice in this line, which is bad.” Sometimes there’s a little more explanation; other times there isn’t.
Why does this kind of comment irritate me? It assumes the author is being unintentional and making a mistake. Going back to the example, repetition is often a choice authors use to build a rhythm and a cohesive theme in their poem. I know someone reading this is going to think, “well, of course, I know about repetition. I would never make that mistake.” Once again, hubris. Repetition isn’t the only place this happens. I constantly see readers giving feedback on grammar that doesn’t really matter because it’s a poem that breaks syntactical rules for a stylistic purpose. Other readers may criticize an image or metaphor that seems unusual without interrogating the author’s purpose in including it.
So how do we get better at this? WE TRUST THE AUTHOR. The author has spent more time with the piece than you have (no matter how long it’s been on your docket). When criticizing a stylistic choice the author makes, I suggest beginning the comment with an acknowledgment of the potential value of the choice before delivering the criticism. So going back to the repetition example, a comment that assumes the author’s intent might be something along the lines of “While the repetition helps improve this line’s rhythm, I think this particular case crosses into redundancy because *reasons*.”
That way, the author knows you understand their reasoning and are commenting with full context.
Taking Creative Control
I love it when editors take initiative in the commentary. Think About The Following Comments:
I dislike the use of the word “big” here because it isn’t specific.
I dislike the use of the word “big” here because it isn’t specific. Perhaps a word like “mammoth” would better convey the enormity of the thing.
The second comment is infinitely easier for the author to implement because they have an idea of what a more specific word would look like. I say this to illustrate that specific suggestions can help with commentary.
That being said, there is a fine line between providing a concrete example of a suggestion and taking creative control of a piece. Taking creative control is hard to define, but it’s essentially when an editor gives an excessive suggestion. I think the best way to illustrate this is by example. Let’s assume this is a poem that’s about ducks, but it’s also about human nature, and you think a certain line needs more of a symbolic punch. Think About The Following Comments 2 (Electric Boogaloo):
I think the message in this line could be stronger if the comparison between the duck and human nature was more explicit.
I think the message in this line could be stronger if the comparison between the duck and human nature was more explicit. Maybe something along the lines of “the duck gazed at me, eyes as empty as the shocking void of human empathy” would better convey your meaning.
While the second comment is certainly interesting, suggesting an entire line to the author is an example of taking creative control of the piece. But, I hear you saying, you just said suggesting word changes is good. What’s the difference?
Excellent question! One changes the piece’s delivery, the other changes its message. Telling the author “I think you should phrase this iteration of your message differently” is different from telling the author “you should add a major literary component to your message.”
I understand that sometimes there’s a beautiful line in your head that you know would fix every issue you have with the line and you just want the author to see what could be there, but your job isn’t to become the author of the piece. Your job is to make the author’s version of the piece better, and sometimes that means letting the author do their thing.
Editing Your Commentary
There’s absolutely nothing worse than seeing commentary that’s riddled with ridiculous mistakes. Well, actually that’s a bit extreme. But you get the point.
I frequently see First Readers and Second Readers writing commentary with more careless grammatical errors than there should be. Misspellings, typos, noun and adjective disagreement, improper usage of advanced vocabulary words and so much more are often present in the commentary. And one of the worst parts is that it can hamper down genuinely good writing. What would otherwise be good and thorough commentary is immediately anchored down by small, easily avoidable mistakes.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to look over commentary for editing. It may seem like a hassle, but going through all sections of the writing, and ensuring that it’s the best it can be, should be a necessity. It’s as simple as that. There’s no way to prevent making mistakes the first time. Writing is a technique that needs to be reworked and tweaked over time, and if you don’t look over the writing, how could you possibly omit spelling errors and typos? You can’t.
Look, the little mistakes get to everyone -- I get it; I’ve been there. But editing work needs to become a must-do, not an afterthought. And the worst thing is when grammatical errors are included in comments about fixing grammar errors. Think about that for a moment. An editor is telling to change their piece’s mistakes while doing the exact same thing. Yep, that’s the worst part. If your sentences are improperly structured, why should the writer of the piece you’re commenting on care about what you have to say? It’s a trick question -- they shouldn’t.
So, that leaves only one way to avoid this predicament: editing. Please, please, just edit your work. Take the time. Not just to make my job easier, or whoever else is reviewing your work, but ensure your work is the best it can be. For yourself. Be proud of the work you’re submitting. Look it over, check for mistakes; I can personally guarantee that there will be at least one mistake the first time. Try it out. I’ll wait.
Editing commentary shouldn’t be something that hurts talented writers; it really shouldn’t. But it is. And it’s easily avoidable. It’s really just a question of whether or not you’re willing to put in the time. That’s all it is.
Balancing Positive/Critical Feedback
This is definitely a personal pet peeve for me. And a big one at that. The most annoying part is that this is something that affects the best of us -- as in, ALL EDITORS. That’s right. Everyone who has ever edited for Polyphony has struggled with this. So, what’s the big deal?
Balancing between positive and critical feedback is crucial to what the writer actually takes away from our thoughts. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at it a little closer…
If you include only positive feedback, and then choose to reject a piece, what is the writer supposed to think? The piece was too good? How can improvement be possible if he/she isn’t aware of what others actually think could be tweaked? It’s not. I see this a lot of times, especially in positive feedback. Just because a piece is good -- maybe even deserving of being accepted in your opinion -- doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Nothing is. So your commentary should reflect this.
And the same logic applies to solely giving critical feedback. Not only will just pure constructive criticism come across as harsh, and even slightly unreasonable, but it will also result in the writer probably not caring about what you have to say. Think about it. If someone only tore apart your piece, providing nothing about what was effective, would you enjoy that? And then subsequently take the time and effort to fix your piece? I didn’t think so. That’s the true danger in not balancing: upsetting the reader and causing them to not listen to our advice as much. The trick? Write what you would want to receive.
Now, you may be wondering what to do if a piece truly is just plain bad. You look it over, reread, and after all of that, you still struggle to find anything positive. What would you do then? Well, that’s a tough situation -- there’s no real right answer. This is an area where I often see editors become overly harsh or critical and fail to really provide any balance whatsoever. It’s an unfortunate situation and one that can challenge even our most experienced editors.
But that doesn’t mean you just give it up. Except you know that already. In this situation, is there really nothing you like? Not a single thing? A single adjective or word combination? A metaphor? Simile? Ending? Beginning? Character development? I think you see where I’m going with this.
Even in bad pieces -- and I’m talking about the worst of the worst -- there are some bright spots. There may be a handful, or even just a few, but as long as there’s something you focus on, then you can still successfully balance between positive and critical feedback.
And if you’ve reached this point, you might be thinking that your comments are both positive and critical. So, how do you actually balance between them? That’s another tricky part. I personally like to try to do an even 50-50 split, usually by giving one positive comment for every snippet of constructive criticism in the specific commentary. For the general commentary, I try to even out the structure itself, often splitting the entirety in half. Perhaps giving the first two paragraphs to explain what was effective and then using the next two paragraphs to elaborate what could be improved upon. Or switching off every other paragraph. Your mileage may differ, but usually following this type of mindset works out pretty well.
Out of all of the pet peeves, I personally feel this is the one that most people don’t even realize their doing. But once you deconstruct the process, the concept really becomes so much simpler: provide a sample of both worlds to aid the writer. Now it can be a challenge -- I won’t sugarcoat that -- but it’s more than achievable. It really is. Don’t overthink it. Write the commentary that you’d like to receive, and all of this will just jump onto the page.
As you can see, a lot more goes into composing commentary than you may have initially expected. And that’s okay. Editing is a learning process that takes time to master. No one immediately has perfect commentary. The real question is: are you willing to strive to become a better writer? Are you willing to put in the work to provide better feedback. The choice remains in, and only in, your hands.
Pauline Paranikas is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and the Editor-in-Chief of Voices.
Daniel Boyko is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger for Voices.