Professional writers develop a thick skin; they learn not to take suggestions or criticisms as attacks on their self-worth. Eventually, the pro might even come to see a gentle query style as pandering, prodding the editor to “get to the point.” But that skin is slow to grow. Along the way, writers are helped by gently worded queries.
What Is an Author Query?
Queries are the notes and comments an editor leaves in a manuscript, asking the writer to clarify a point. They are the kinds of questions you’d ask when your “editorial sixth sense” tells you something isn’t quite right and you’d like the author to verify the content. Queries ask things like
- Does this change retain your meaning?
- I’m having difficulty with this line. Please explain it another way to help me understand how we might refine it.
- The source has this worded differently. Change OK?
How to Query Nicely
Some of these recommendations for phrasing innocuous queries appeared in Catharine Fishel’s article from The Editorial Eye that was printed the 1996 Stet Again.
- Use positive language. Go ahead and write terse queries as you work, so long as you go back and rewrite them before hitting send. Change “Confusing. Delete!” to something more like “Great quote but the length interrupts the flow—let’s trim,” says Fishel.
- Include positive feedback. Include some notes of praise alone, such as “This is a really evocative scene.”
- Send a cushion. If there are a lot of queries, write something positive in the overall note that introduces the edited manuscript.
How to Avoid Pandering
Experts as well as professional writers do tend to get offended when they feel someone is talking down to them. Fishel recommends these practices:
- Don’t be a pedant. Know when to be flexible.
- Don’t over-teach. Citing long passages from style manuals can sound scolding. It’s your job to know the style manual, it is the writer’s job to write. Simply suggest the change without teaching.
- Ask, don’t tell. Phrasing queries as actual questions can soften the tone, as long as they’re not loaded questions like “What is this supposed to mean?”
How do you soften author queries? Log in to leave a comment, or join the discussion over on Facebook or Twitter. You might also be interested in this post on editing the most reluctant of writers: the VIP.