By Daniel Boyko, Jennifer Wang, and Jessica Sidrak
As much as editors seem to be attracted to using large vocabulary words—often words that aren’t used in everyday conversation—that allow the editor to show off their literary prowess, this isn’t the most important factor in writing good commentary. And it isn’t even close. Precise language in editing, and I can’t stress this enough, is by far one of the most important aspects of editing. Why, you ask? Let’s find out…
Precision is necessary for the writer of a submission to understand an editor’s suggestions in a clear and concise manner. If the editor uses precise language properly, then there will be no need for further clarification, and no need for the writer to ponder the suggestions, questioning what exactly needs to improve. Don’t believe me? Let’s look a little closer at some life-like edits for the specific commentary:
(a) Pg1, P3, L2: Omit the description of the tree because it causes the sentence to be confusing.
(b) Pg1, P3, L2: What’s the purpose of describing the tree in this line? It feels slightly unrelated to the rest of the paragraph and your message as a whole, and while I could be missing something, I can’t help but feel that it clouds and distracts away from the strong details that you compose previously.
Now, looking at these two comments, which one is stronger? I’ll give you a hint: it’s the more precise one. Still thinking… no? It’s “b”. And it is every single time. Without question, without fault. 100% of the time it’s stronger. And it’s not because it’s more detailed or longer, or even because it poses the writer a question. The real reason is that it provides detailed and informative feedback on what needs to be improved. Precision doesn’t necessarily mean having details -- it actually has a connotation with the opposite (being more concise and shortened) -- but in this case, the more specifics, the merrier.
And this is actually a very vital point. Precision and details are closely intertwined with one another -- details help to create focal points to be more precise in a response/feedback -- but be smart with your details. What do I mean by this?
It’s not necessary to give details on every single portion and component of this sentence, nor give a history lesson on the impact of trees on the world. But it is necessary to provide a picture and content to help support the point you’re trying to make; while this does create a fine line between giving too much content versus not enough, a good rule of thumb is to look and see if the details deter away from the central point. If the answer is a resounding “yes,” then chances are these so-called details are actually just fluff that superficially add to your writing. And if the answer is a confident “no,” then you'll be happy to find that the reader can actually understand the feedback being given in a clear and concise manner. This key difference is actually why precision ultimately triumphs over details in importance: it helps the reader more. Let’s bring this back to the examples above…
For the first comment, “a,” this does not inform the writer what exactly is “confusing” or why emitting it would be beneficial. What’s the writer supposed to think? That you just don’t like trees? And the worst part of this comment is that I have seen plenty of real editors write commentary like this, especially First Readers -- who often seem to be wary of expanding upon their thoughts. Look, you don’t need to write an essay, or even a full paragraph, in the specific commentary (hence why we’re trying to be precise), but you can’t be precise with details if there aren’t any specifics apparent. Think about it. There’s not enough content to even attempt to cut down or shorten and get to the good stuff. And it only leaves the writer unsure about why including the tree is a negative.
Now, let’s look at comment “b”. Is this comment perfect? Not exactly. But does it do a significantly better job of including precise language when compared to comment “a”? Absolutely. This comment explains why including the tree is a negative and is precise with its ability to describe it as a negativity, unafraid to elaborate how it results in “clouding” and “distracting” away from the message. The wording of this is immersive for the reader, direct, and undeniably clear in its entirety. The writer can now see why it’s helpful for him/her to not need to fit in the tree and, in the process, also isn’t left to wonder why the editor has some grudge against trees.
You see, that’s the real defining feature of the utilization of precise language in editing: good editors don’t do it because it sounds fancy (that’s just an added-bonus), they do it to communicate with the reader. Good editors (and quite frankly, good writers) are precise because it provides a point effectively, efficiently, and ensures that the reader (in this case the writer of the submission) completely understands the advice being given. Could the writer still disagree with this note afterwards? Certainly, but at least now there’s logic and an explanation given to support the possibility.
Now, you might be thinking that this seems way too simple -- obviously the comment with more details is better. But if it’s so easy, why do so many editors (including real editors at Polyphony Lit) lack precision? Is it just because they haven’t read this awesome post?
While it’s a possibility, the truth of the matter is that far too many editors get caught up in using overly complicated vocabulary words that don’t necessarily pertain to a specific comment of advice, write too broadly without depicting what needs to be improved, and/or simply assume that the writer will just naturally understand their comments full-heartedly. So, how do you solve that?
The easiest and most simple answer is (just wait for it)... be precise. With your commentary, and any editor’s commentary, it is absolutely necessary to get to the point. Don’t drift off and give an essay on someone else’s work; be objective in suggesting and providing feedback, but don’t stop there. Don’t merely just mention how something was “good” or “bad,” because in all seriousness, how do you quantify good or bad? You don’t. It’s basic logic -- what one person thinks is talented, superb writing that is reminiscent of the next Steinbeck, another editor might view as nothing more than the ramblings of a middle schooler (hence why there’s so many disagreements between Polyphony Lit editors, and why there’s a rationale for accept or reject).
And this is exactly where precise language in editing comes in. Being smart with your word choice helps to paint a picture of what was effective or what wasn’t and the reason why. Precision results in clarification, and what does that result in? Having everyone benefit. Other editors will view your work and understand your perspective better, and the writer might sincerely take your words to heart and apply them to his/her submission, potentially improving for the future, even if that one particular piece never gets published.
Moreover, this also goes along with the concept of not repeating to the writer what he/her already knows. Don’t just spew common knowledge about his/her piece, like the main character’s name or basic plot details. The writer already knows that! He/she doesn’t need to be told it again; they’ve read their piece already after all. So don’t act like they haven’t. However, this means that you, as an editor, have the added benefit of going along with this, and getting straight to the meat of your content. And when you get into the thick of your advice, your writing shines more for the natural talent, passion and brilliant observations that you already know you’re capable of. That’s how we begin to write more comment “b’s” and less of comment “a”.
Look, precision with words is never an easy task. It’s something that many talented writers struggle with, and many more attempt to improve as they gain more experience. Professionals strive to achieve precision, because at the end of the day, it’s a hallmark of quality, sound writing. And that is why it’s one of the most important features of your language when editing. It may be difficult, but by avoiding unnecessary chunks of information (most of which the writer already knows), ensuring that only the most vital details are included, and emitting overly complex vocabulary words that aren’t necessary, I can personally guarantee that your editing will improve as a result. Think you’re up for it?
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Jennifer Wang is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a Content Editor at Voices.
Jessica Sidrak is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.