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Maintaining a Positive Tone in Feedback

By Brooke Nind and Melanie Van Peenen

Your computer pings with the sound of an email bringing you your next forwarded submission. While logging into Submissions Manager, you eagerly anticipate the piece. Will it be fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry? What ideas did the writer explore? And as you do your first read, the piece far surpasses your expectations. Wow! The imagery is vivid, the message is thoughtful, and the tone is powerful. Your commentary is filled with compliments, interpretations, and thoughtful questions, brimming with nothing but excitement and positivity.


However, in a world in which every piece was flawless, editors wouldn’t be needed. It is, unfortunately, virtually impossible to write a publishing ready piece without revisions. Even so, no piece is 100% perfect, and no piece is a lost cause. We are tasked with the challenge of crafting encouraging and considerate commentary, hopefully bringing your work closer to perfection.

So how do you do that? How do we maintain a positive tone in your commentary? Well...we’re here to help out!


Let’s take a look at a singular line of specific commentary:

The word choice is vague, and the line is wordy, making your ideas unclear. I’m confused.


Though the comment may very lightly hint at some valuable points, it is rather curt. There isn’t enough information about the editor’s recommendations, and the writer is unlikely to effectively improve upon anything.


So let's change it up:


I’m a little confused about what the line means, mainly because it is wordy. You might want to rephrase the line and use more specific diction to clarify your ideas.


Notice a difference?


Yes, this line is longer, and illustrates the same ideas, but with a little bit of restructuring, the editor’s lack of understanding is no longer just defined by a terse “I’m confused.”


There are several factors to take away from the new and improved specific commentary:


  1. Qualifiers (with caution): The comment utilizes qualifiers to “soften the blow.” Phrases like “you might want to” or “you could consider” imply that your comments are only your personal opinions as opposed to hard facts.


That said, though commentary should be thoughtful and leave writers room to develop their own voice, it is important that your comments do not err on the side of being unconfident and timid. Overuse of qualifiers may also create a comment that’s more fluff than useful advice. No one wants to read through a paragraph to find that the editor’s only suggestion was to add a comma.


  1. Problem AND Solution: The comment indicates what the editor believes could benefit from alteration, creating a much more constructive and encouraging suggestion. More specifically, instead of saying “that the word choice is vague” and solely, passively pointing out the negative, the comment spins the phrase into a positive, actionable solution.


Although this example solely breaks down a vague, solitary comment, unattached to any specific work, it showcases the impact of subtle changes in the way thoughts and suggestions are phrased. One comment doesn’t have a monumental effect on tone when it’s just there, standing by itself. When these comments become five or ten, that effect is significantly multiplied. When this is added to your general commentary, boom, you have a product that greatly changes with each alteration in the components that built it up. Little nuances really do make a difference.


Here are some more tips to help you out:

  • Don’t use statements that sound demanding in any sort of way. You might come off as aggressive, which is the opposite of how we Polyphony Lit editors should be.

  • Use phrases such as “I suggest..”, “I recommend…”, “My advice is…”, etc. so your editorial comments won’t sound accusatory.

  • Make sure to explain the “why.” After asking yourself what does not seem to be working, ask yourself why. Then, translate that reasoning into your commentary. Giving writers a glimpse into your thought process is one of the best ways to help writers more effectively implement and more positively receive your feedback.

  • Simple nods to the writer's attempts (at developing the plot, utilizing figurative language, exploring motifs or themes, etc.) can go a long way.

  • Put equal thought into your compliments as you do with feedback. If you find yourself editing one of those pieces that frustrates you, check out the blog post “Finding Positive Qualities in a Piece You Dislike” on the Voices Blog (Yes. This is a plug for a Voices blog post within another Voices blog post -- blog post inception).


In the end, it all comes down to balance.


As editors, we all have valid ideas to contribute, and an amazing opportunity and skillset to help uplift the voices of other young writers. But, understandably, it can be hard to hone in on our critical eyes. I hope some of my advice helps you figure out how to strike balance in your commentary.


How do you approach softening your tone when editing a piece?

Brooke Nind is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.


Melanie Van Peenen is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.

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