Q&A - How important is understanding a piece's meaning to you?

By Hannah Ramsey and Daniel Boyko

Hannah Ramsey: I know that whenever I’m editing a submission, whether it be a very personal nonfiction narrative or a poem that’s laden with symbolism and stunning imagery, I want to comprehend each detail. I often prefer to look at a submission from every angle while simultaneously attempting to understand the motivation behind the author’s work, specifically why they created said characters, and what their purpose is. However, I try to refrain from doing this obsessively. Sometimes it is actually the uncertainty of a piece that renders it beautiful; not knowing can be more thrilling than knowing. Undoubtedly, it is important for a submission to have an overarching theme and a succinct message that is comprehensible to readers. That being said, if there is some ambiguity regarding the intent of the piece, that doesn’t necessarily indicate it isn’t exceptional. At times, it’s admissible and even compelling for the audience not to know everything. There are definitely times I find myself rereading a piece that I can’t seem to make sense of, but there are also many occasions where I read a submission I don’t fully understand, immersed in its language. I formulate my own meaning for the story, one that may have not been the author’s original aim but one that is significant to me. Readers don’t necessarily need to know the “why” of the story for it to possess real value and meaning; sometimes the “what” may be enough. Daniel Boyko: Personally, a piece’s meaning is probably one of the most challenging aspects of a submission to contrive. On the one hand, every submission should feel personal and significant, as if the writer is handing me a snapshot of their inner thoughts—whatever the delicate topic might be—and is providing a glance at how they think. I like to feel as if I’m reading an important, tangible piece of work that someone put emotion and hard work into crafting; it’s one of the great parts of being an editor and reading firsthand how someone’s thoughts can come together on the page.

Of course, understanding the meaning of the piece goes right along with that. The reader should ideally take away the desired meaning of the piece and feel the intended emotions. For instance, a creative piece displaying despair near its worst should enable the reader to feel that loss of hope; if that doesn’t come across, chances are readers are not going to come away feeling as impacted as they could’ve been. A sense of connection with the writer, a knowledge of what he/she wants me to come away with, definitely allows me to approach a piece more easily; it becomes clearer which points are meant to be emphasized, and which details are meant to lead to drama. In the end, through clearly articulated descriptions, I have a better understanding of the picture the writer is painting.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for ambivalence, particularly in poetry, where the writing itself tends to lead itself to far less direct paths. Isn’t it great when multiple readers get multiple different messages from the same piece? When an ambiguous ending or a cliffhanger leaves the reader considering the piece even longer and letting the story linger? However, this same beauty can also lead itself to trouble. When it comes to certain pieces, there is a fine line between figurative language and an excess of abstractness. When that line is blurred, metaphors and literary devices intertwine with reality, but the result is far from pretty. It often leads to a jarring piece where the reader comes away thinking, “Wait, what happened?” A piece that reads smoothly is always a positive, but too often these types of pieces fail to answer the go-to English teacher question: “So, what?” The poem or story might sound nice but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with resonance. If the purpose of writing is to express oneself and leave an impression and an impact on those who read it, then a piece’s meaning has to be a highly-valued quality; there’s no getting around that. Do I value a piece’s meaning above all else? No, but it’s something I certainly look for. Understanding a piece’s goal, even if it is far from directly stated, allows the rest of the piece to slip into place like building a LEGO set. Every detail and every description begins to find a home or a reason why it belongs, either as a fundamental part of the foundation or a decorative part to enhance the structure. This might also be found in an ambiguous piece, but for me, there’s simply no beating that structure the reader hands you when it’s a personal piece with a meaning you clearly understand. What do you think? How important is understanding a piece’s meaning to you?

Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.


Hannah Ramsey is a Genre Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.