Justifying your commentary
Prior to the thrill of receiving their Submission Manager account and their very first submission, all Polyphony Lit editors undergo a brief application process. In this three to four-week period, an aspirant and artistically-inclined teenager is sent several files that serve as guidelines and a sample poem. They then have about a week to compose a page or two of commentary and forward it to an Executive Editor, one of the staff’s most adroit readers. The Executive Editor then judges the level of insight and understanding that the applicant has exhibited.
A few days after my Submission Manager account had been created, I decided to reread the Executive Editor’s feedback. Admittedly, I was so caught up in the exhilaration of being accepted that I merely glanced at it through it the first time through. With a more collected mind this time around, I realized that the Executive Editor tied almost all of their comments back to the concept of justifying your commentary. Indeed, one of the heaviest factors that weigh into your application is whether your advice to the author has been justified in a meticulous and professional manner.
But why is a thorough defense of your thoughts so, so critical?
Let’s start with the author’s perspective. Imagine yourself as a dedicated teen writer who recently received five pages of commentary from our Managing Editor himself, Billy Lombardo. After eagerly booting it up on your computer, it dawns upon you that the first reader has just told you to delete your favorite line in the work. It strikes an intrinsic sentiment of sorrow and uncertainty within, but who can blame you? If my favorite part wasn’t even good, how could the rest be good?
The worst part comes next. The reader has simply left his or her comments as “P1, L5: Delete this line.” Now, the immediate gloom you initially felt may solidify into a long-lasting bitterness and resent. How can this editor have the nerve to deprecate the glory of my sentence? Though we’re sure you would sound far less entitled than we just did, the aforementioned situation would be disheartening nonetheless. You may even close the commentary right there, furiously drag the file to your desktop’s trash can, and close your eyes in satisfaction as it vanishes into cyberspace.
On the other hand, imagine the commentary to be something along the lines of “P1, L5: I suggest that you delete this line. It seems slightly unrelated to the story at this point and unnecessarily shifts our focus from the mother’s narration of her childhood to the image of ‘a deer currently upturning a pristine blanket of snow outside.’” Not only does this editor express themselves in a more composed and sensitive manner, they offer a thorough justification that is worthy of contemplation. You are able to make sense of the reader’s critique and realize something you may have overlooked. Nodding in agreement, you continue scrolling through for the next hour or so. You arrive at the final, uplifting line. This time, you have not succumbed to sorrow. Rather, you have immensely refined your piece. Each reader has given you a tender hand to help you up and onward.
Ultimately, justifying your commentary breaks the fourth wall between the writers and you, the editor. It helps conflate your views with theirs. When writing comments, be sure to keep these few questions in mind. Have I clearly put forth a suggestion for the author, whether it’s to rearrange a line, eliminate it completely, etc. Have I explained why I would do so? And finally, Have I offered my advice in a graceful and thoughtful manner?
Regardless of your position or experience as an editor, visceral reactions will factor into your opinions. Maybe it was the tragic love story, or maybe it was just so funny you couldn’t help yourself from bursting into fits of laughter throughout your editing. Conversely, there may have been a line, a phrase, a word that felt off-putting. Yet, sometimes, it may be hard to verbalize these gut feelings; deep-seated emotions often serve as roadblocks to forming concrete commentary.
That being said, here are some literary components to keep an eye out for, as well as advice on how to address their deficiencies:
1. Word Choice
Precise and meaningful word choice is an indispensable element of any successful work of literature. Yet, sometimes, the intrinsic feeling that a certain word is odd or bland or just simply bad is difficult to put into words. Moreover, I specifically recall struggling with how to actually justify the need for specific and purposeful word choice. As we’ve internalized this idea since a very young age, we may find that it has shifted into second-nature, something we take notice of subconsciously.
With that in mind, reflect on how word choice ties into other crucial elements of the story, and you’ll likely find an answer to what particularly irked you about a descriptor/phrase. Consider the author’s tone. Maybe a single word appears too colloquial for a multi-paragraph memoir. Take into account the mood the writer is attempting to construct. Words that are generally passive, such as “walked” and “got up,” often detract from the emotional gravity of a piece. Reflect whether the word choice reinforces the persona of a character. For instance, if the writer has previously described the protagonist as elated, “leaped out of her seat” would be a more appropriate phrase than would “stood up.”
2. Tone of Voice
Another crucial aspect to be conscientious of as an editor is the writer’s tone of voice. Tone of voice is much more than what is being conveyed. An effective tone of voice will elicit a specific feeling from the audience, whether it’s fear or joy. The first step to evaluating the strength of the writer’s tone is to determine their purpose. What kind of story are they trying to tell? Are they attempting to scare you so hard you are left slumped on your editing chair, desperately gasping for air? If you are unable to spot a clear purpose, there is an inherent deficiency in their tone of voice.
Next, consider how successful the writer was in provoking that specific reaction from you. Did you feel grief coiling around your chest? Did that scene take your breath away before giving it back? If so, be sure to applaud the writer for doing so. If not, offer some advice. Say their purpose was to enliven the reader’s spirits. In that case, advise them to include words such as “bright,” “daylight,” and “youthful.”
Two examples of overarching problems that could confuse the reader are a tone that is inconsistent with the direction of the story and tones that switch arbitrarily in the middle of scenes. It is absolutely imperative all writers have a clear map of their tone before writing a story, and having a clear tone of voice will ultimately make that writing come to life.
Used by the inexperienced and the experienced, the amateur and the professional, the poet and the essayist, metaphors remain one of the most popular techniques in the literary world. As editors, it is invigorating to stumble across the boldest of metaphors, the most refreshing, the most exquisite. However, it is ineluctable that we also come across those that are slightly awkward or perplexing. But when we do, it is our duty to identify the root of the issue.
With that in mind, a metaphor can turn the reader off if:
1. The metaphor makes use of a little-known fact or idea.
If most readers cannot make sense of the comparison that is being drawn, it is difficult for them to appreciate the metaphor. One of our fellow editors made an analogy that we sometimes borrow. This type of metaphor is a 75-year-old man who lives in a secluded village in Lithuania. Since hardly anybody recognizes him, he is overlooked and forgotten at the end of the day.
2. The metaphor is a watered-down cliche.
If the writer does not put their own voice on a traditional metaphor and merely recycles its fundamental nature, the reader cannot genuinely appreciate its generic nature. Unfortunately, excessive use of cliches implies an inherent lack of creativity within the work. It’s perfectly fine to draw inspiration from a classic, but writers should distinguish it through their own perspectives.
Patrick Tong is a Copy Editor for Voices and a Second Reader at Polyphony LIT.
Ellen Hu is a First Reader at Polyphony LIT.