The Nature of Editorial Feedback
By Anya Chabria and Daniel Boyko
If you work for Polyphony Lit, you’re more than familiar with this message from Billy:
“With Polyphony Lit, in addition to producing a beautiful, professional magazine, representative of the finest voices in high school poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, we are also committed to providing our young poets and writers with editorial suggestions and commentary intended to help them deepen their understanding of craft. Key to the realization of these ideals is our commitment to working with editors to help develop their voices, and providing them with the tools with which to better serve our poets and writers.
To this end, we ask our higher-level editors to provide feedback on the commentary they edit from the previous readers/editors of each submission.”
At Polyphony, we take immense pride in providing feedback not just to writers, but to editors as well. It’s a crucial part of the writing process. Receiving feedback as an editor refines the way that you look at submissions; the critique becomes ingrained into your mind as you consider the tone, structure, and stylistic choices of not just the submission, but your own Specific and General Commentary. Furthermore, the process of writing editorial feedback itself can be immensely beneficial. As you see what succeeds and what leaves something to be desired in other editorial commentary, you yourself learn something new. In this way, editorial feedback creates an essential feedback loop.
Anya: I know for me, the first editorial feedback I got made a massive difference. As a New First Reader, I got an evaluation from Emmy Cho, who is currently a Poetry GME. The depth, sophistication, tone, and sheer length of her critique was inspiring. After the time-consuming application process, this evaluation is what convinced me to stick with Polyphony Lit. I could jump into the submission manager knowing that there would be people watching and guiding me along the way, constantly nudging me in the right direction.
Daniel: Personally, it wasn’t my first set of editorial feedback that really affected me. Or the second. Or even the third. It was somewhere much farther along when it really resonated. I think I was a Genre Editor at the time (back when Genre Editors had to do commentary) and was under the belief that I was comfortable with the responsibilities and goals of where my commentary and editing should be at. I was wrong. I still don’t remember who it was, but I practically received a full-blown essay that analyzed every fundamental component of my writing and depicted how to improve. And I was blown away. Well-articulated, verbose, and seemingly a master of all things Polyphony, whoever this editor was, that’s who I wanted to be. As long there were editors above me that could write like that, there was hope for me to reach that level eventually too.
Since feedback to editors is so important, we must also consider how we organize it. Just like Polyphony Lit’s “Specific Commentary” and “General Commentary” structure, formatting is what generates the first impression. The structure is what establishes the tone, the professionalism, the readability. To that end, let’s discuss a few ways to format feedback to editors…
Classic: Block Paragraph(s)
This is the most typical format of editorial feedback that we see at Polyphony Lit.
The feedback radiates with a human voice. It’s imbued with a gentle tone, and a sense of enthusiasm. You know you’re communicating with a peer who understands the work you put into your feedback, and isn’t just trying to dole out critiques. The block paragraphs give you room to be creative, to be lively, to be personal. You can easily establish a connection with the fellow editor.
Okay, this can get tough to read. The paragraphs can go on and on and on forever (especially for someone who likes to write a lot). Further, in an era of skimming, large block paragraphs can also cause editors to glaze over crucial feedback.
A little less used, but not unheard of. In a numbered list, you can swiftly enumerate some critiques of another editor’s commentary, and give them suggestions for the future.
It’s fast to read (and possibly faster to write).
It’s highly readable.
Later on, as the editor works on future submissions, they can refer to the critiques as a checklist.
It allows you to write one tiny feedback unrelated to the others without worrying about where to group it.
This can become overly systematic.
The way you’re reading this is just mechanical.
It makes it easier to command the editor (writing “do this” or “you should”).
Okay, this is (mostly) a joke, but what if…
Dear Sarah Smith,
Thank you for your feedback
On submission 1342 (“Boyhood”)
Some feedback I will give
But it is for your own good
You have excellent control of tone
But I must remind you
Not to let traditional
Grammar rules blind you
Poetry does not
Always need punctuation
Rather, it frees the speaker
Of this limitation
(To be clear, in no known universe would this poem be accepted by Polyphony Lit. Please, don’t try it.)
Lara Katz (our Editor-in-Chief) actually used a poetic structure for a crunchie once, so it’s not entirely unheard of. If you have the poetic skill, go for it. I’m curious.
The Super Short Sentence
I hope for your own sake that you are not familiar with this type of feedback. It goes something like this:
Dear Sarah Smith, thank you for your commentary on submission 1342 (“Boyhood”). You made a few grammatical errors, so try avoiding those. The end.
It takes about thirty seconds to write (not joking).
I don’t think I would be mistaken if I said that this is the bane of every Genre/Executive Editor’s existence. Please, please, please don’t do this anymore. The only pro here serves the person providing the feedback, not the one receiving it. The point of the critique is to delve into the other editor’s commentary, to be specific and helpful in as many ways as possible. One sentence doesn’t do that. Even if you don’t see many flaws in the commentary, you can still make a paragraph writing about the strengths. Be precise. Knowing what to keep doing is just as important as knowing what to change.
(You might be thinking this is ridiculous (because it kind of is), but way more editors than you might expect write commentary like this.)
Anya: I tend to use block paragraphs. They just better suit my style. If you’ve met me, you know that I tend to be highly chatty and prolific. I tend to group my ideas, and elaborate on details. A series of paragraphs just suits my style. Plus, I like how paragraphs give me control over the voice and tone. It’s like creating a (not-so) mini written work.
Daniel: I also prefer the classic block paragraphs. Something about it just makes sense for me. I usually overcomplicate things, like way too much, so it seems somewhat obvious that the big chunks of text would be my favorite route. I feel like it’s the best way for me to stress, and I mean really stress, both the positives and negatives of someone else’s commentary and feel free to use textual evidence (because I’m that person). Although looking back on the cons of the style, I do tend to drone on, so for anyone that reads my extra-long paragraphs, I’m (mostly) sorry.
We wanted to end this with a note from Lara Katz:
“I think formatting should be an editorial choice for sure, but I also think the root of this is really, really important, which is that editors should be putting as much time, thought, and energy into their feedback to previous readers as they do into their own work. Sometimes I feel like I see feedback that is quite brief or leaves out some important points, often not mentioning errors I know that the editor wouldn't have made if the commentary were theirs. And considering our recent policy change, this is even more important. Basically, I feel like sometimes the feedback leaves a little to be desired, not because the editor writing it doesn't know that there are issues in the commentary, but that they just don't want to or know how to address it effectively in their feedback.”
Whether your feedback is in long, detailed paragraphs or short, condensed lists, the most important thing is the work that you put into it. The most crucial element of editorial feedback is the substance: the time spent reading through and editing another editor’s commentary, and giving them advice that may shape the rest of their editorial career. Formatting is only important because it allows you to better communicate deep, probing critique. Structure is not the end-all-be-all. Rather, it is the mechanism by which you allow sophisticated feedback to flow. At Polyphony Lit, we attempt to take this river of evaluation and, by this shape or that, channel it in the right direction. So use whatever format you want, as long as it delivers quality content.
Except for the super short sentence. Definitely don’t do that. Never again.
How has feedback to editors, from editors affected you? How do you format your feedback? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section!
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Anya Chabria is an Executive Editor at Polyphony Lit and a Content Editor at Voices.