A version of this article was published by ACES, the Society for Editing in the US, on 17 November 2021, under the title: Author queries for the nonfiction editor: how to raise ’em and how to phrase ’em and it now appears in my own blog with their permission.
Why should American editors have taken any notice of me, a UK copyeditor of scholarly humanities and social sciences? Well, exactly a year before I started drafting the original post, I received this comment from a professor-author: ‘Everything has gone so smoothly and the tables which you sent our authors make the process quick and simple. It also discourages them from making last minute rewrites – genius!’
And a few weeks ago, I received this from another happy professor-author: ‘Would that all copy editors were so thorough and clear in their queries. Will you marry me?’ (Don’t believe me? Check out the testimonial from Professor Pagán on my Authors page! The other professor-author is a little camera-shy.)
My 7 golden rules for writing author queries
- Be valid
- Be clear
- Be concise
- Be humble
- Be efficient
- Be polite
- Be selective
Is what you’re about to ask a valid query? Does it truly need raising? From general chat on social media, I’m afraid some copyeditors do like to use queries to show off their own knowledge, or try to force their personal preferences on authors. You all know this: it’s not your book (or journal article, or report or what have you).
Don’t weaponise queries!
Don’t try to silence an author’s voice because you have a bee in your bonnet about a particular point of grammar. Those things are endlessly debatable.
Is your query about a factual issue – a missing reference, a sentence that got half-amended by the author before they moved on? Is there genuine confusion? If it’s a wording thing, maybe put the query aside whilst you read on for a couple of paragraphs – a simple edit to put things right may become obvious. But do remember to go back to it!
Do be very aware that a word unfamiliar to you may be the perfect word in the context. Just because you don’t know a word doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Look it up before you change it or query it.
As an example, don’t correct ‘immanent’ to ‘imminent.’ Look up ‘immanent’ if it’s not in your vocabulary yet. And don’t restrict yourself to looking in a dictionary. Only today, I discovered half a dozen words missing from Merriam-Webster that are terms of art in anthropology. Use Google (or your preferred search engine) and search more widely if you don’t get a sensible hit in a dictionary. And when it comes to ‘terms of art’ itself don’t, as one copyeditor recently tried to do to me, change it to ‘arty terms’ – not the same thing at all. Look it up. Look everything up. Seriously.
Put yourself in the author’s position, receiving the query. The author isn’t privy to what is going on inside your head! You already know that there’s a gulf between what someone’s thinking and how they write it down. That applies to you, too. Don’t assume the author will make the same assumption as you on this point.
Write down the question. In full. Don’t just say, ‘Not clear. Rewrite?’ Say, ‘I’m not sure what you mean here. Might it be [suggested wording] or perhaps [another stab at it] or something else? Please advise.’ Or perhaps you might write (if you have established a good relationship with the author): ‘This sentence runs into trouble! I think the second ‘as’ should be a comma. Do I have that right? Please advise how this should read.’
Often, by the time I’ve finished writing the query, the answer has become very clear to me, and I can delete the query – hurrah! Otherwise, the query goes out and often results in a substantive change – with distance from their text, authors can often send me a reworked sentence that is far better than the dodgy one I was querying.
The author is busy. Do not write a screed for each query. Keep it as long as it absolutely has to be, and no longer. Equally, keep it as long as it absolutely has to be, and no shorter. Don’t risk sounding terse, or brusque, and tell yourself you’re being businesslike. You’ll destroy your relationship with the author that way.
The author almost certainly knows more about the topic, and their book (or journal article, or report or what have you) than you do. I’m going to say it again – if it’s unfamiliar to you, look it up before you take it up with the author. The author may well be completely right, and you’ll have learned something. Carry this through to the way you word your queries, too – accept that you may have misread or misinterpreted something, and include occasionally the question ‘…or have I just read this wrong?’
Send queries in an organised fashion. Group them by chapter as the smallest unit. Don’t send lots of emails with individual queries as they occur to you.
Keep a log of what queries have gone out, when, when they came back and when you actioned them, if that’s part of the workflow you’re undertaking. Help the author keep to time by giving them timescales, and ask if they feel that timescale is achievable for them – don’t dictate it. Then don’t be afraid to chase them up.
I periodically send a list of outstanding items, if an author is being dilatory. Help them to be organised, too! I’ve never had an author complain I’m being uppity, but I’ve had many an author ask me for the latest outstanding list, to check against their own log.
I give each list and each query a serial number, so referring to them in email conversations is easily done. No ambiguity.
ALWAYS be polite. I’ve seen some shockers reported on social media – one editor allegedly complained directly to the author, via a query, that the author was making the same mistakes over and again and berating them for not taking notice and getting better. That’s not good PR for our profession.
Empathise with your author. Imagine being the author, getting a slew of queries. How do they feel about that? They’d put a lot of work into their text and, presumably, thought they’d done a fine and thorough job. And along you come to point out over and over again that they hadn’t.
Say please. I say ‘please’ in almost every query. It softens the blow and leaves the author in the driving seat. It’s their name on the cover, after all.
Your author may insist on stet. It can be disheartening if they reject the validity of your query. If they have the right to reject or accept your changes, and reject more than they accept, well, now you know how authors can feel your queries as criticisms.
If it’s just a matter of ‘I’d not have written it that way’ or it’s a minor point, choose to let it go. Save your ammunition for the things that matter.
Sometimes you’ll realise the author has a firm grasp on the wrong end of the query stick. If you think the author would say something different if they’d understood correctly, then rephrase and requery. Sometimes I’ll copy and paste the query into a follow-up email, and be more expansive about the problem, explaining why the response I’ve been sent won’t do. The penny will usually drop, and you’ll get the answer you need. Academic authors in particular seem to be very time-poor when it comes to answering queries, and don’t always stop to ponder. That’s where clarity and concision will help you along.
With the seven golden rules ringing in your ears, how do you put them into practice?
Queries can be raised in four basic ways:
- Directly via email
- In comments bubbles
- Listed out in a Word document
- Listed out in a Word table
#1 – I can’t recommend this. Emails can get missed, they become overwhelming, there’s probably a lack of consistency and clarity in how things are asked.
#2 – I do this when I must. I dislike sending the ms back to the author with queries as the author is then tempted to do lots of other little rewordings, silently, and unless you lock the file (which can occasionally foul up, in my experience) and explain precisely what the author has to do, then it can get messy very quickly. It also bloats the file – and in larger files, that can be a real issue.
#3 – When I started out, I used to see other people doing this a lot. They’d just write a list of queries in a plain Word document, quoting page and line numbers. Messy, disorganised and so easy for an author to slide past a query and move to the next.
#4 – Now we’re talking!
My patented (not really) Word table for queries
I devised a Word table for my queries, and I use this whenever I’m not absolutely required to raise queries in comments bubbles. It looks like this:
Image © Sue Littleford, 2022
You can see columns for my running serial numbers and the rough location I’m talking about (the file name and the file footer both have the serial number for the list itself). When I edit, almost from the start my page numbers will be drifting away from the author’s copy. I don’t even try to identify the original page and line numbers. But I’ll specify the chapter number and, if there is one, the section heading. I might add ‘next paragraph’ if the queries are coming thick and fast, or ‘final para of the section’ if it’s a long section with nothing much going on beforehand – little touches that make the author feel escorted through the process.
In the next column I paste the entire paragraph that contains the text I’m querying. I may add a note, or a biblio entry, for clarity or to save the author scurrying around for essential additional context. If it’s a table or an image, I paste that at the end of the list and tell the author that’s where it is.
Then – and this is where the magic happens – I highlight the words that I’m querying. For a simple missing reference, I’ll highlight the citation. For some dodgy wording, I’ll highlight the sentence(s), phrase(s), or word(s) affected. For a page number that doesn’t make sense, I’ll highlight the page number and supply the reference from the bibliography, stating that I’ve confirmed the page range.
If I want the author to choose between, say, the version of the chapter title in the table of contents and the version at the chapter head, I’ll put in both, label them, highlight the points of difference and ask the author to choose one or provide a new title. My aim is to keep the author away from their own copy of the manuscript.
In the next column I write out the query. If there’s more than one query in the paragraph, I colour code the highlighting and then say, for example: ‘Two queries here. First, in yellow [query]. And in green, [query].’ Just make sure you use highlighter shades that can be read through!
Then there’s the space for the author’s response.
This way, the author has all the context, doesn’t need access to the edited manuscript, and can focus just on the queries.
If you’re charged with incorporating the answers into the text, you’ll find this layout is really clear as you work through each answer. If you do need to go back to the author on anything, you can quote the list number and the query number.
The startling news is that all this isn’t slow. It may feel slow when the process is all listed out as it is here, but it’s actually fast and efficient in practice.
Making your querying life even easier
Use a text expander. There are several available, with free and paid versions. It’s a bit like Autocorrect in Word, but you can use a text expander in all programs.
Load up your text expander with your commonly used queries. If I type a particular code, I produce this with just four keystrokes: ‘This work is missing from the references list. Please supply full bibliographical details.’ Two keystrokes bring up ‘Please advise.’
Four keystrokes give me ‘What is the page number for this quotation, please?’
You can also use a text expander to hold paragraphs of standard text for your emails with the author.
Agree timescales with your author to turn the queries around. My much-preferred method for books is to send queries as I complete each chapter. That way, you get an early feel for how the author’s going to respond to you; the author isn’t overwhelmed by a book’s worth of queries in one fell swoop; and the work stays manageable for both of you.
If the author obliges by answering the queries as you go along, you may find that you won’t be raising queries unnecessarily later in the text. If that missing reference is supplied, it’s there ahead of the citations you’ll find three or four chapters later. Points of principle can also be thrashed out in the early queries. And, as happened to me a couple of books ago, you may find with the first chapter’s queries that the wrong files were sent to you. Imagine editing the whole book before I’d found that out!
Doing queries chapter by chapter also gives you some insurance – the time needed after the edit before the files are ready for the typesetter is reduced as the bulk of the queries will already have been answered. Should the author hit problems with their availability, at least some of the queries are settled.
By keeping in touch with the author throughout the book you can also build a better relationship – if you can get chatting with them, it’s much easier to get a testimonial: either they’ll have already volunteered a compliment, and you can ask their permission to use it, or it’ll be easier to ask for a testimonial when the job is finished. Make your author feel good and they’ll pass on your name to colleagues; if the publisher has a feedback form for authors, you’ll come out of that well, too.
Author queries are not a power struggle. They’re cooperation in action.