I am not a subject-matter expert, but I do work with them. Experts are just as prone to slips, flubs, misunderstandings, and folk beliefs as every other human is. Sometimes when we’re editing, our spidey-senses twinge and we find ourselves checking a fact, even if we weren’t asked to. What do you do when your expert author seems to have gotten a basic fact wrong? You query.
How Not to Query
“Weight is measured in pounds, not yards,” would be an inelegant query, for example. It sounds admonishing. Even worse would be, “No, this is not the right unit of measure.” While the editor is completely in the right, such phrasing is likely to irk even the most confident writer. It’s best to treat them with compassion, since we all make mistakes now and again, and admonishing is the surest way to invoke Muphry’s Law. Protect yourself with the tips below.
Don’t just make the change without alerting the writer. The expert might be correcting well-entrenched misconceptions, resulting in a difficult fact checking task and confusion for an editor. A little legwork goes a long way to instilling confidence and helping the author save face.
- Assume the best. Maybe the error was a simple flub, like the one in the example. The editor could just make the suggested change, and leave the shortest of queries: “Change ok?”
The editor might even provide an alternative fix: “Or should ‘weighed’ be changed to ‘measured’ so that it means height?” Though, that would have to be the dog from The Never Ending Story. (Maybe don’t include that last line.)
- Phrase it from the reader’s perspective, or from that of their colleagues: “Would experts agree with this number? Important Veterinary Reference gives this as 40 pounds.”
- Suggest additional content that might clarify: “At first glance, this looks like an error. Perhaps a parenthetical explanation of this unconventional use would help.” (But beware that might give a condescending tone in a case as seemingly clear-cut as pounds vs yards.)
Query with Confidence
Check your own facts.
Cite the source of the contradictory evidence you found. Use reputable sources; Wikipedia won’t cut it with a discerning author.
Be congenial and assume the best.