The Art of the Query

copyediting query

In copyediting, queries are used to address problems in a manuscript. They typically ask the author a question or explain an edit to the author. But there is such a thing as query overload, and horribly written queries can tarnish the author-editor relationship.

Writing is extremely personal. I know what it’s like to pour yourself into a manuscript, polish it, and send it out to others for review. Most of this experience comes from my college years, since I majored in creative writing and minored in magazine journalism. I spent a lot of time writing and receiving feedback on my writing. I also worked at the University Writing Center, where students scheduled thirty-minute consultations with me. I’d sit down with the student, read the student’s paper, and then we’d discuss the paper’s strengths and weaknesses and what the student could do to improve the paper.

Since launching my freelance business, I’ve had the chance to get to know other freelancers through associations, discussion forums, and editing classes. Many of them do not have a degree in writing or English, nor did they work in publishing prior to becoming a freelance editor. You don’t need this type of experience to be an editor, but having it has certainly shaped me into the editor that I am today. My college writing classes and my job at the writing center taught me how to evaluate what I’m reading and how to offer constructive, courteous feedback.

As a copyeditor, most of my dialogue with the author is done through queries. I spend a significant amount of time editing my queries before sending a manuscript back to an author. I don’t want to bombard the author with a massive amount of queries, and I don’t want to create extra work for the author. If the query isn’t well written, the author may miss the point or be offended by my question, thus not resolving the problem.

When reviewing my queries, I always ask myself, what am I asking the author to do, and why does the author need to do it? How is the author going to feel about it? How can I get the information I need from the author? Is this a recurring issue that can be resolved with a blanket query at the first instance? Have I phrased the question in a way that prevents another round of review? Have I avoided asking questions that will elicit a yes or no response rather than the answer I really need or, better yet, a direct change in the text?

I also know that I am not the writer and that it’s up to the author if he wants to say something differently. For example, I will often insert a query if the author has used the same word more than once in a sentence, giving the author the option to vary word choice.

copyediting query

I also spend time looking things up both before I query an author. There’s no point in asking the author something I could have easily resolved myself with the resources available to me. As Carol Saller writes, “To challenge, query, or—god forbid—change perfectly good text without making the least effort to check it is one of the great crimes of copyediting.”

Over the years, I have honed my querying skills. I construct my queries as best as I can to remind the author of the goal of the publication and to ensure he will do what he can to resolve the problems I’ve brought to his attention. Being respectful of the author’s work helps foster a collaborative, constructive relationship, which is always great for business but is essential to the clarity of the text, and I know I have my college years to thank for that.

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