By Ruby Seidner
As Junior Editors for Polyphony Lit, we are responsible for writing both Specific and General Commentary for each submission. General Commentary usually refers to broad feedback on specific themes, characterization, and conceptual aspects of the piece, while Specific Commentary focuses on detailed critiques of grammatical issues, misused words, or observations about lines that stand out from the rest. While there are commentary guidelines that are quite easy to follow. Every so often, a piece contains so many positive or negative points to address that it's easy forget that commentary is supposed to be concise – after all, the Senior Editors have to read it and give us feedback (as well as giving feedback on the piece), and I’m sure none of us want to be the editor who makes them stay up till 2am, wading through our neverending commentary.
Additionally, excessive negative or positive feedback can lessen the impact of our commentary, and make the writer so overwhelmed that they won't be able to soak any of it in. As a Junior Editor with 63 logged hours at Polyphony Lit, I have four tips that will help you make your commentary concise as well as make the writing of it a more enjoyable process.
Create Templates for Yourself: This may look different for different editors. But I like to create a template of the flow of my observations that I make in my general commentary so I don’t end up going on and on. For me that looks like creating a three paragraph outline of what I say in each General Commentary that I write. My commentary is never more or less than three paragraphs to make sure that I keep it concise. My first paragraph focuses on broad aspects of the piece, imagery, and general thoughts. My second paragraph usually gives general critiques of the piece, and my third paragraph most often has a few sentences about authorial intent as I reinforce the positive points in the piece. Finally, I like to end my general commentary with something from the heart, such as thanking the author for submitting and wishing them well or telling them something that I appreciated about their writing style.
Keep Your Specific Commentary Equal: Sometimes if you are reviewing a really bad or good piece the feedback can get a little bit unbalanced. Which is why I like to make sure that I have equal good, and bad line edits. The exact number doesn't necessarily matter. I just usually try to keep my feedback, and appreciation equal so that the author does not get suffocated with praise or criticism.
Edit Your Commentary Thoroughly: When you finish writing your commentary, I would suggest looking it over at least three times: first to check for grammatical issues, second to check your clarity and word choice, and third to make sure you are not repeating yourself. Broadly restating advice from your Specific Commentary in your General Commentary is a great way to reiterate important points, but I suggest editing out redundant comments that come up twice in your commentary. For example, in your General Commentary, you don’t need to tell the author twice that their use of emotional adjectives adds to the narrative. Similarly, in Specific Commentary, you don’t need to comment on the same grammar issue if it appears in two places.
Be Kind To Yourself: As editors, we always want to make the pieces we edit the best that they can be. This desire is great, as we should want to do the best that we can to help the writer improve their pieces. However, this desire can sometimes lead to stress and meandering commentary as we try to pick out every single thing that is right or wrong with a piece. Thus, it is important to remember that you’re not the only editor of the piece, so simply focus on a few specific things that you want the writer to work on and that you want to praise. Chances are that your fellow Junior and Senior Editors will provide their own unique feedback, and together your teamwork will give the writer everything that they need to make the piece the best it can be.
Please remember that the tips that I shared are not Polyphony Lit’s rules, rather guidelines that I have implemented for myself that have helped me improve my commentary. These tips are not meant to be used as shortcuts, but instead, as templates to help you spend more time fleshing out your commentary and inspiring the next generation of writers to reach their creative potential.
Ruby Seidner is a blogger at Voices and Junior Editor at Polyphony.