Writing non-repetitive general commentary
Ahh, the classics. Every genre has its own issues, its own tropes and cliches. Romance novels have meet-cutes, fantasy novels have doorways to the new world, and Polyphony commentary has the repetitive general commentary. As I’ve read more and more comments from more and more editors, I’ve discovered two main categories of general commentary: the general commentary that’s the specific commentary except this time, there’s an “overall” or “throughout the piece” thrown in as well and the general commentary that’s three sentences of praise and a “thank you for submitting to Polyphony LIT!”
Before I delve into why these commentaries aren’t necessarily effective and how to improve them, a quick word on what I believe the purposes of the general and specific commentaries are.
The general commentary is an examination of the piece as a whole: its overall meaning and its ultimate impact on the reader. How do you feel after reading it? Is that how you’re supposed to feel? What made you feel that way? Beyond answering these questions in the general commentary, it’s also a space to ask the author questions. If you’re not sure what the meaning of a poem is, give the author your best guess and support it with evidence. Even if you’re wrong, they’ll see where they need to clarify their meaning. So yes, the general commentary is, to an extent, a look at the poem from a distance. But it could be so much more. A function of the general commentary that is, in my opinion, greatly underutilized, is to elaborate on specific comments.
The consensus on specific commentary seems to be that it is where the editor corrects grammar mistakes and word choice, perhaps throwing in an occasional “this sounds forced.” That’s all well and good, but that’s not the most effective way to give commentary: it gets repetitive fast and it can seem overwhelming to the author. To me, the most effective specific commentary is the one that sets up the general commentary. Note that I did not write “the one that says exactly the same thing as the general commentary.” The one that sets up the general commentary.
Those of you writing repetitive general commentary, this is where your problems start. Looking at an issue with the piece, you think “This is a Really Big Problem. I should mention it twice so the author notices it for sure, and it’s both specific and general so I can put it in both sections.” That’s a logical way of thinking, but it doesn’t make for the most effective commentary because your specific and general commentaries often end up saying the same thing, rather than tackling the same issue from different perspectives.
Let’s say you’re reading a poem and the poet has a real problem with concision. It’s a poem, yet it’s five pages long, and it could really be boiled down to the fourteen most powerful lines without losing anything. In the specific commentary, point out one or two lines that you find could be more concise. Tell the author “this line could be more concise. Here’s why I think that. To fix it, eliminate these words.”
In the general commentary, you would elaborate. “You have a problem with concision,” you would write, except much more nicely because poets have feelings too and poetry is hard, so they deserve a break. “Concision is good in poetry because of *reasons*. I suggest you go through the piece and reevaluate which lines are strictly necessary to the piece, and then try to cut even those lines down some.” Congratulations! You’ve just successfully brought something up in the specific and general commentaries without repeating yourself. Note that the specific comment is about the specific problem in that line and a case-specific solution, whereas the general comment is an explanation of why the problem is bad and how to fix it throughout the piece.
The other end of the spectrum is the editor who doesn’t want to repeat themselves in the general commentary and ends up overloading their specific commentary because they need to point out every instance of a flaw. You’re worried that the author won’t apply your suggestion everywhere in the piece, so you make the same recommendation over and over again. Avoiding repetition is a good instinct to have, but writing that much specific commentary is exhausting and it leaves you without much to say in the general commentary, which is exhausting and makes your comments look off balance.
Let’s say that you read a piece of fiction, and you look as hard as you can but there is not a single properly placed comma. You could go through the piece and painstakingly advise the author to change this comma to a semicolon, and to remove this semicolon and replace it with a period, and to turn this period into a comma, and so on. Or, you could point out one instance of comma usage in the specific commentary, and then use the general commentary to tell the author “hey, you have a problem with comma usage. Please consult a textbook or run your writing through Grammarly,” except you’d say that much more nicely because even writers who don’t have good grammar deserve love and submitting to Polyphony can be scary.
If your specific commentary is miles long but your general commentary is looking like its only going to be about three sentences, take a look at your repeated specific comments and turn them into one general comment that sums up the entire issue.
The general commentary can be tough to get used to. It takes a lot of practice to adjust to the Polyphony LIT commentary format, but with enough practice, you can get to the point where it’s second nature.
Pauline Paranikas is the Assistant Editor-in-Chief for Voices and an Executive Editor at Polyphony LIT.