An American Editor

December 8, 2014

The Business of Editing: The Art of the Query

Over the years (31 years in another month), I have had the privilege of working with a lot of colleagues and being on the receiving end of a lot of job applications. That has given me an insight into how editors view aspects of their job and how they go about applying for work.

In a previous essay, Business of Editing: Losing the Chance, in “Error 6” I discussed the copyediting test and how it is possible to tell whether an applicant passed or failed the test within one minute. One way to tell is to look at any queries. (Of course, the lack of any queries can also be very revealing.)

Most editors do not understand the variety of roles that queries fulfill. If you want to kill future prospects, a quick way to do so is with poor, no, or little (when more than a little is expected) querying. Queries should be viewed as playing these roles, at minimum:

  • to ask the author a question
  • to demonstrate to the author and to the client (assuming your client is not the author) that you are knowledgeable
  • to explain
  • to market your skills
  • to make the author and client comfortable with you
  • to demonstrate why you are the editor that the author and client should always seek out

Each of these roles is linked to your success as a professional editor.

To Ask a Question

Editors get tired of writing the same query repeatedly, chapter after chapter, even project after project. Repetition is deadly but let’s face it, many of the queries we need to ask remain the same author to author, client to client, and project to project. After a while, there is a tendency to scale back on the query because it is tedious to retype. This is where a tool like EditTool’s Insert Query macro is a solution to a problem.

What I have seen is repeat queries being truncated. The first time, maybe the second time, the editor will write:

AQ: There is no section by this title in this chapter. Is this the correct section title? Please either provide the correct section title or modify the incorrect section title.

But it isn’t long before that query becomes “AQ: Please provide the correct section title,” which shortly thereafter becomes “AQ: Need correct section title,” which soon becomes “AQ: Section title?” — or, which also often happens, the query starts and finishes as “AQ: Section title?”

The first query identifies the problem, asks the question, and offers alternative solutions — it shows that you are a professional editor. But the pared down versions show laziness and a lack of understanding of how to communicate with an author. More importantly, the message you are sending your client — whether the client is the author or the publisher — is that you are not a professional.

The pared down versions also suffer from being incomplete. How do you expect the author to understand what the problem is and the solutions are from a cryptic message? (The worst queries I have ever seen were “AQ: ?” How can one form a response? My initial reaction was to reply “ED: !!!”)

To Demonstrate Knowledge and Explain

We all have lots of competition. One way we convince clients to hire us again or to recommend us to colleagues is by demonstrating our knowledge, whether it be of the subject matter or of something else appropriate.

For example, it is common in books that I edit for authors to confuse “recur” and “reoccur.” Consequently, where I think they may have confused the terms, I ask:

AQ: Recur/recurrence mean to happen again repeatedly; reoccur/reoccurrence mean to happen again but only once. Which do you mean here?

This query demonstrates my knowledge of language and raises an important point, because it does matter greatly whether something happens repeatedly or just once again. (And I make my life easy by having this as a standard query in my EditTools Insert Query dataset so I only need to select it and insert it, not type each time I want to use it.)

Two additional examples of queries that I routinely use in my editing work are:

AQ: Should “/day” be changed to “/dose” or should “divided” be added before “bid”? As written it appears that the daily dose is to be given multiple times a day. Please make clear the frequency.


AQ: Do you mean “e.g.” rather than “i.e.”? When the items are only examples and the list is not all inclusive, “e.g.” is used. If the listed items are all the possibilities, then “i.e.” is used. If “i.e.” is correct, consider moving the material from the parens and making it a proper part of the sentence.

Notice the messages I am communicating. First, I identify the problem; the author does not have to guess. Second, I explain why it is a problem. Third, I provide solutions. Both the author and the client can see that I am carefully reading the manuscript, I am thinking about the manuscript (i.e., I am focused), I care about the manuscript and the author, and, above all, that I am knowledgeable about editing — that is, that the editor’s primary role is to help the author communicate clearly and that one tool in the editor’s toolbox for doing that is for the editor to communicate clearly with the author.

The point is that queries can serve multiple purposes and I want all of those purposes to reflect positively on me.

To Market and to Comfort

Every author is anxious about the editor. After all, the author has invested time and effort into the manuscript and wants it treated with respect. For those of us who work indirectly with authors, the author’s anxiety about us is even greater. And because we work for publishers or packagers, the publishers and packagers also experience anxiety albeit at a much lesser level than authors. Their concern often revolves around how the author will perceive and receive the editor.

You put everyone at ease when you demonstrate your skills and communicate effectively. Perhaps more importantly, if you view queries as your opportunity to establish your credentials with the author and client, you will be more cautious in how you write them, which means that you are less likely to antagonize either the client or the author.

I recall a book I was asked to review after it had been edited because the author was angry over the editing and had spent a considerable amount of time both berating the inhouse production staff for having hired the editor and in correcting what the author perceived as editor errors.

As I went through the editing it became pretty clear that the editing was well done; the problem was the queries. They were written in such a manner as to convey the editor’s contempt for the author. I admit the author was somewhat lazy and that had I been the editor, I, too, would have been cursing the author — but the difference is that I would not have let those feelings permeate the queries: neither the author nor the client should ever think that I have anything but admiration for the author’s work.

The editor hadn’t comforted the author or the client nor had the editor marketed herself well. The author’s anger might be ratcheted down a bit, but both the author and the client will hesitate to use the editor again, and the author will let fellow authors know as well.

To Demonstrate Why I am The Editor

Presumably we are all well-skilled, well-qualified professional editors. Put us in a bag, shake us up, and pull one of us out at random and you should get a good quality editing job. But that doesn’t bring me any business, and bringing in business is the name of the game. (If you haven’t read it, let me recommend my book, The Business of Editing. It is not enough to have editing skills, you must always be thinking and acting like a business.)

I always have the need to bring in future business in mind, so when I edit I look at the editing as a way to impress my client, and I look at queries as the way to both impress and communicate what makes me The Editor — the editor to hire for future projects and the editor to recommend to colleagues. Well-crafted, informative queries (just like emails and online posts) are like a billboard advertising my skills. Cryptic, curt queries undermine the image of professionalism that I want to project.

This does not mean that every query needs to be five sentences long or a dissertation on grammar. It does mean that every query must satisfy these criteria:

  • be on point, not meandering
  • identifies the problem and offers an appropriate solution
  • reinforces my skills and expertise as an editor
  • reinforces the correctness of the decision to hire me
  • declares clearly my status as a professional editor

Every query that I write that fulfills those criteria sets me apart from my competition and says I am The Editor.

EditTools’ Insert Query Macro

Because writing queries can be time-consuming, it is a good idea to build query templates that require minor modification based on the circumstance and project. That is the premise behind EditTools’ Insert Query macro. I have numerous “standard” queries that are saved to a dataset and that I can call up and modify for a particular project. In addition, each project has its own custom queries. By using the Insert Query macro, I can minimize the time I need to spend inputting a query and the opportunity for inputting error. It also means that I can use more detailed queries because I do not have to retype the same query innumerable times.

Consider this query:

AQ: Using this type of time reference allows the time to shift. The shift occurs because the reference was made when you were writing the text but doesn’t allow for either editing and production time until publication or for the book’s expected several-year shelf-life or for the passage of time between the writing of the text and when it is read by a reader. It would be better to write, for example, “since 2000” (substitute the appropriate year), so that the time reference always remains static.

How long would it take you to type this query? How many times would you care to do so? With EditTools’ Insert Query macro, I typed it once into the dataset and now can either use it as is or modify it as needed, taking seconds rather than minutes and avoiding typing errors.

To get the most out of queries, think of queries as marketing tools.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


June 26, 2013

On Language: Infer or State?

In a recent opinion column, the columnist wrote: The “annual rate fell 58 percent, from 5 [sexual assault] victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older to 2.1….” The editorial question is this: Should “age 12 or older” be edited to read “age 12 years or older”?

We, meaning readers as well as editors, “understand” that the writer means “age 12 years or older” — or at least we infer the years — but should we infer or should the author state clearly that years is the measure?

This is not as nit-picky as it appears. Sixty years ago, I do not think there was ever any mention of a sexual assault made on an infant; today, such crimes are reported regularly by the media. Consequently, how do we know that “age 12 or older” means years and not months or weeks? In fact, how do we know that a reader will infer years rather than days, weeks, or months? If I had just read a story about the assault of a 12-week-old baby, I might well decide that “age 12 or older” means “age 12 weeks or older.”

This is the fundamental problem with inferred or assumed matters. What the author intends to be inferred or assumed may not be what the reader infers or assumes, which can change the message entirely. (Not only was the article not clear about the measure, it similarly referred to incidents of “sexual assault” but never defined what that meant.)

What was an otherwise well-written op-ed piece, became a not-so-well-written-message-lost op-ed piece because both the author and the editor forgot the basic requirement of written communication: clarity. The acceptance of inferred/assumed terms in written material is too commonplace. Granted at times it has little consequence in a novel, because fiction often wants readers to draw their own conclusions — sometimes as in a good mystery to let the reader lead herself astray, sometimes because it doesn’t matter to the story — yet there are many times in fiction writing when the failure to be precise makes a story difficult to follow.

In contrast, however, allowing the reader to infer or assume in nonfiction is always problematic. This is one indication of poor authorship, and it is poor editing that allows it to stand unchallenged. Nonfiction is intended to be fact-based and to relate facts about the topic to the reader. When a reader has to supply some of those facts himself, the reader may choose erroneous facts — suddenly what was a demonstration of the existence of humankind’s impact on global warming becomes proof that humankind has no impact at all. To try to go back afterward and supply the missing information that had to be assumed/inferred by the reader subjects the author to charges of manipulation of the data after the fact and, more importantly, greatly weakens the author’s argument.

The difficulty that authors face is that they already know what they mean and so read “age 12 or older” correctly. The omission is not obvious; it does not stand out like a sword waiting to prick the bubble of the author’s argument.

The difficulty that editors face is that they are like authors in that they, too, see what they expect (see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud). Yet, this is one hallmark of the professional editor (in contrast to the nonprofessional editor) — the ability to set aside expectations and to see what assumptions readers are being asked to make and the implications of making those assumptions. It is not that the editor can decide whether “age 12 or older” should be, for example, “age 12 years or older” or “age 12 months or older,” although that may be possible from the context of the surrounding material, but rather that the editor can see the problem of letting the reader draw her own conclusion and can note the problem to the author who should provide the fix.

Ultimately the question becomes this: Is there a time when, in nonfiction, the editor should allow the reader to infer or assume or does the professional editor always query instances that require the reader to supply missing facts? Here opinions vary among editors. I am of the opinion that there is never a time when the reader should be allowed to infer or assume facts in nonfiction. I am also of the opinion that the times when it is permissible in fiction are very limited.

I think it is important to not permit a reader to infer or assume facts because to do so means that the author hasn’t provided the complete message that she is trying to communicate to the reader. If there is no complete message, what is the purpose of the writing? Why has the author invested time and effort in writing if the author does not intend to say something? Alongside the intent to send a message to the reader is the need to do so precisely and concisely and in a manner that does not leave the reader wondering whether the author means a or b or even anything at all.

I have repeatedly said that the one cardinal rule of editing, the one rule that supersedes all other rules, including those of grammar and spelling, is that the author’s writing must communicate the author’s message to the reader without any confusion on the part of the reader as to what the message is. The failure to meet that rule is an authorial and an editorial failure. The sole purpose of writing is communication. (Yes, writing is also intended to, for example, entertain, but this and purposes other than communication are secondary to the primary purpose of communication.)

In the example of “age 12 or older,” it is the editor’s responsibility to, at minimum, query the author to supply the measure. Because an author’s response is likely to be, “You’ve got to be kidding me. It is obviously years,” the editor needs to explain, at least the first time such a query is made, why precision is important and illustrate how easy it would be for a reader to make the wrong inference.

Do you query in these instances or let the author’s wording stand?

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