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  • Writer's pictureRiya Bajpai

How to write commentary on shorter-than-usual pieces

By Riya Bajpai

 

A few months back, I recall receiving that dopamine-inducing notification in my inbox from Polyphony saying that I was assigned a new submission. The piece had an elusive title that immediately had me hooked. I brought my cursor over to the submission title and clicked, waiting in anticipation as the document downloaded on my laptop. When the page popped up on my screen, though, I was surprised by the sight of the piece.


What I saw were three lines in a familiar 5-7-5 syllable format. It was a traditional haiku! 


Needless to say, I was intimidated. How could I provide adequate feedback without asking the author to rewrite their poem completely? What was there even to say? Admittedly, even more intimidating was that the editors before me had managed to write various developed and well-considered paragraphs of commentary. After so many years in Polyphony, my first thought was still, wow! That’s a lot for a haiku!


The way the previous editors presented their commentary was so approachable, genuine, and knowledgeable, and it inspired me to take more time to flesh out the ideas in my feedback. I emerged victorious with several solid paragraphs of general commentary (though, remember: feedback is about quality rather than quantity)!


How did I (eventually) manage to write thorough feedback for this three-lined piece? What made the previous editors’ commentary so special? What should you do if you face a similar situation and are at a loss for what to write? 


I’ve come up with a few easy steps to help guide you through the intimidating process of, yes, developing feedback on a piece that sometimes feels just too short!


1. Ask questions


In a short piece, you are not always going to know everything. Because a submission is short, the writer usually leaves a sense of ambiguity within their writing, leaving room for interpretation. This ambiguity is a notable opportunity to prod the writer to reflect on their ideas and assess the intentionality of their choices. 


Consider these questions to get you started: how does the writing hook the audience? What style choices does the writer use to develop their message? Is the message clear, or purposefully nuanced? What is something unique about the piece? Personally, I like to include questions that the piece raises for me: how does [insert character’s name] feel at this moment? Where did [insert idea] originate from? I find this method helpful for short pieces because it allows you, as the editor, to explore the meaning of what is not said.


2. Think: what more can be done?


Perhaps the piece seems excellent as it is: unchanged. This is where you can consider what can be more transparent, expansive, or elaborated upon. Even if the writer feels that what they have should stay unchanged, providing suggestions on expanding their piece is a great way to get their gears turning, even if they might not apply those ideas to their current work. 


3. Delve into style and structure


Here’s where it’s always handy to do a little background research. For example, say you’re assigned a sonnet but you’ve never really worked with one before. You can take advantage of Google and learn more about the form, its rhythm, and the common themes or context that might be associated with sonnets! By understanding the submission at a deeper level, you can take your feedback by storm and provide more effective suggestions because you have obtained a thorough understanding of the writer’s intent (and if you did not, maybe you can mention that in your feedback). You’ll be able to easily add more content to your commentary by identifying style choices that the writer makes. This can be helpful in any situation, whether dealing with a short piece or not!


4. Identify the good


My golden rule - and I think that of Polyphony’s in general - is to always identify the best in a piece to supplement your critical lens. Recognizing the good is especially beneficial for your feedback to short pieces because not only does it help build the morale of the writer you are communicating to, but it also builds content for you to develop your ideas within. You can always elaborate on why you feel the writer’s choices benefit their piece. By explaining why certain aspects of a submission work well, you give the writer a good idea of what they can continue doing in their writing. 


With these four takeaways, you can take on editing pieces of any length! The most important takeaway is that you remain genuine in your commentary and provide feedback to an extent you feel is most suitable for the piece. Have faith in yourself as an editor - you already have all the skills necessary to succeed!


 

Riya Bajpai is an Editor-in-Chief atVoices and Genre Managing Editor at Polyphony.

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