Mastering the Author Query

Author queries make me nervous. I’m afraid of offending an author and derailing a project. As an editor, I want to communicate with the heart of a servant and with the “authority” of a skilled professional.

I mean those things. I view my role as one that is chiefly concerned with serving the author. I’m there to help them present their material more clearly. I’m also involved with some level of proficiency. Authors rely on editors to “work their magic” and ensure that the work is logically arranged and grammatically sound.

The author query is an important part of this process. It is the nitty-gritty communication between editors and authors – within the text being edited, no less. Get the queries wrong and the relationship could go south. Hence, my nervousness about them.

I confessed all of this to a colleague and she gave me a fantastic magazine article from Copy Editor magazine. In 2007 Susan Hesse wrote “The Gentle Art of the Author Query.” The following list includes the most salient points of her work.

  1. Introduce request for explanations with simple phrases. “To clarify the wording…” Or, “As written, this suggests that…”
  2. Review your queries before sending them to the author. You may find you’re able to rewrite some of the questionable sentences (having finished reading the whole piece).
  3. Suggesting a solution is always more helpful than merely saying, “this passage is confusing.” Authors will tell you if you’ve got it all wrong or they’ll approve your edit.
  4. Make every reasonable attempt to do your own fact checking. Then all you need to ask about a revision is, “Okay as edited?”
  5. If you really don’t know what something means, point out the problematic wording with phrases like, “Please restate the preceding idea since the phrase does not have clear meaning.”
  6. Minimize repetition of queries. If repetition is necessary, keep the queries concise. “Reference?” “Date?”
  7. If you have more than one query about the same passage of text, number them.
  8. Reassure authors that you can take care of incorporating the new information you’ve asked for, even that you prefer to.
  9. Phrase your queries to be impersonal. Avoid using the word ‘you.’ “As written, this implies…” instead of “You said…”
  10. Let go of your own ego and don’t be put off by author egos.

And lastly…

“In our written communications with authors, we editors should aim to maintain a collegial rather than adversarial tone.”

If you’re in a writers group, or if your spouse or good friend is a writer, chances are high that you’ll be asked to edit something. I hope this list is helpful for you in those moments. I plan to use these points not just in my work, but (especially) when reading the work of a good friend.

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