Messages from Writers on Writing and Education

The Art of Editorial Conversation

Author Queries in Editing

Youn-Joo Park

The optimal experience for a reader is to enjoy a reading journey unencumbered by writing stumbles or puzzlement over meanings. Provided that the writer has demonstrated facility with expression and the editor has performed a meticulous review to help showcase the writer’s skills, the basic activity of reading should offer easy comprehension and confer energy to the reader to focus on the ideas. The achievement of such a smooth publication process calls for a great investment of editorial labor and the negotiation of the boundaries in the communication exchange.

In this scenario, the concept of roles is foundational to understanding the relational dynamics between the writer and the editor. The writer’s presence is naturally prominent because the objective is for the author to articulate concepts to wide audiences. On the other hand, the editor’s presence is primarily subordinate due to the editorial work being veiled behind the scenes. And herein lies the paradoxical challenge in the editor–writer relationship: These roles must be somewhat reversed while the editorial work is taking place. For a writer to fully benefit from editing, the prominent role of the author needs to be momentarily suspended so that the editor can take the lead in guiding the writer.

The writer’s passions are laudable, but like many aspects in life, the ego can become an obstacle. Writing involves the emotion of pride for some people because they wish to communicate ideas that are inextricably intertwined with their identity. By the final stage of writing, they have poured thousands of hours over the ideas and the desired expressions. Furthermore, the prominent position of a writer—if not realized and self-checked—may develop into hubris. The initial preparation for a writer working with an editor is to adopt a suitable mindset of not fishing for compliments to reinforce one’s literary inspirations and accomplishments but of seeking out constructive feedback that will help elevate the writing.

Relatedly, an editor must operate from the fundamental position of trusting the writer as the content expert. The writer has a compelling stance on the topic or else would not have embarked on a writing project in the first place, so the editor should leave most ideas intact if these are reasonable and well supported. For the benefit of the writer, the editor’s job is to comb through detailed nuances of the writing to diagnose muddy language, redress any bumps in verbal eloquence, and ultimately counsel the writer on how to convey ideas for improved readability and maximum impact.

The purpose of the publication notwithstanding, an editor must swiftly adapt to the particular content and accommodate the writer’s style. The editor does not have the prerogative to apply one’s vision for the publication; rather, it can be perilous for the editor to possess deep content knowledge, lest that imposes one’s own ideas and interferes with the writer’s intentions. Although the editor likely holds opinions and advanced knowledge on a given topic, originality must be proffered by the author. The objective of the editor is to assist two parties: first, the author, by making edits that result in the best possible expression of ideas—and second, the reader, by making edits that illuminate concepts effortlessly.

To render the final product impeccable, editorial work requires intense concentration, with scrutiny paid to different levels of analyses simultaneously. The review must be macro to ascertain how everything fits into the overall scope of the project, meso to assess continuity and logical connections from one section to another, and micro to account for the minute details. To consider multiple dimensions of a written piece and perform quality work, the process cannot be rushed. If the original document is relatively free of problems, the work can proceed quickly, but it is common that a complication consumes extra, unexpected time and there are at least a dozen issues to address per page.

Some edits can be applied without consulting the writer, such as fixing typos, punctuation misplacements, and small slip-ups appearing in the writing process. For the most part, the formatting can be left alone as well because the writer has the responsibility to adhere to a specific editorial style. However, more substantive edits should be queried, to clarify meaning, resolve inconsistencies, and verify facts.

It is crucial for the editor to conceptualize the editing work as a conversation rather than as unilateral feedback, because ideally, this editor–writer team collaborates to achieve the goal of a stellar publication. The editor engages in this conversation with the writer typically through written form, as they each complete their work independently. When the editor provides suggestions, however, there is a chance of misinterpretation or unintended slights, so the work of pointing out problems is a delicate art. The editor’s “hard skills” are the expertise on linguistic sensitivity and technical facility, but the development of the “soft skills” (see below) can drive the edits home. Thus, the editor must strive to be diplomatic when presenting the set of questions to the writer, which is collectively known as author queries. These questions corresponding to the content are often embedded in the margins of a document for greater accessibility but are sometimes presented in a letter or memo. The next section presents four guidelines for composing effective author queries, with examples.

Editorial Conversation Guidelines

1. Be concise.

The queries should be phrased as succinctly as possible. Too much feedback can muddy the clarity of the communication. Getting to the point will not only save the writer time in having to think about the requested edits but also provide a laser-focused spotlight on the issues to be addressed. Instead of packing a query with feel-good filler content before arriving at the main point, the editor should objectively communicate relevant concepts, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Making author queries concise
Situation Ineffective query Better query
Sentence: “The machine was finally produced and released to the public, after several notable failures.” The idea is interesting, but I believe it’s possible for you to include some historical context in the paragraph so that readers can be oriented to the development of this phenomenon before understanding how we got to where we are currently. To better orient readers to the current situation, what do you think about adding some historical context before this?
Sentence: “The medical profession is still investigating unexpected problems regarding the manufacturing and distribution of the medicine to the general populace.” What I notice in this discussion is that you talk at length about the administrative problems surrounding the medicine in the medical industry but don’t necessarily talk about individual cases like side effects. (I can tell you from experience because my Aunt Sally was prescribed this!) The discussion would be better if you include a section on side effects. One valuable idea to include in this discussion might be the medicine’s side effects. What do you think?

In the first sample sentence, the compliments of the first query are certainly fine, but the purpose of editorial work should extend beyond praise and instead point out what might provide a fuller context for readers’ comprehension. The second version of the query achieves this goal effectively by stating the purpose of a recommended modification and proposing an idea for the writer to consider. It also has the benefit of being framed as a question, thereby orienting the writer toward taking action rather than positing the editor’s opinionated statement or anecdote.

Especially for a writer working with an editor for the first time, the editorial process may seem arduous and intimidating. To help allay anxiety over this daunting experience, the editor can trim the verbal weeds from the query language and include solely the essential information—no more and no less. This is exemplified by the second sample sentence, in which the second query briefly proposes information to include and then asks the writer to consider it. Even visually, in the side-by-side comparison of the queries, it is evident that a concise expression of the concern can help the editorial work to not get lost in extraneous details.

An editor can show thoughtfulness toward the writer by economizing on the words in the query. By taking just a few moments to assess whether the query’s verbiage is undoubtedly essential, the editor can guide the writer to quickly focus on the major parts that merit attention.

2. Be explanatory.

Before asking a question or proposing a substantive change, the editor can briefly describe the issue so there is little ambiguity in what is requested from the writer. The bonus of an explanation is that it may help persuade the writer of the need to modify the text. This guideline can seemingly contradict the aforementioned tip of concise writing, but it should be utilized in relevant contexts, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Including explanations in author queries
Situation Ineffective query Better query
Independent quote: “Time can be an ally or an enemy.” Who said this? You need to include sources and put it in context. A free-standing quote should be incorporated into a sentence and include a citation. Please modify it.
Sentence: “Today, the study utilizes the theory for the interconnected part of these studies to assist in demonstrating the efficiency of the experiments.” This sentence doesn’t make sense, so please revise it. Please revise this sentence so there are fewer prepositions used (“for,” “of,” “to,” “in”).

In the first sample sentence, the brevity of the first query might convey an abrupt tone, without imparting the core lesson on why the writer would need to enclose the free-standing quote with some other contextual information. The second query takes care of that issue by describing the missing editorial component that may be unknown to the writer.

Next in the second sample, the first query states “doesn’t make sense,” instead of diagnosing what might be the problem. It is plausible that the writer crafted this sentence without realizing that prepositions are bogging down the meaning, so the second query explains what needs to be fixed. If the construction of the original sentence had been less complex, the editor might have applied an edit directly without querying, but to avoid the risk of misunderstanding the author’s original meaning, the safest method is to give the writer the opportunity to propose an alternative phrasing.

In coaching the writer, the editor is like a teacher who provides explanations so that the writer can be empowered by the knowledge to act and apply the learning to other situations.

3. Be specific.

In pursuit of clarity, the editor is constantly on the lookout to help the writer offer sufficient details so that readers can more easily comprehend the ideas. In the same way, an editor must practice what is preached by using precise language in the query and pointing out what should be addressed (see Table 3).

Table 3: Using specific language in author queries
Situation Ineffective query Better query
There is a spelling error present in a figure. The editor is unable to edit the text because the figure is in the form of an image. There is a misspelled word at the end of Figure 1. Please fix it and be sure to proofread everything. At the end of Figure 1, did you intend to say “acceptance” instead of “assistance”?
Sentence: “People’s lack of cultural awareness may make it challenging for them to accept empathy.” What do you mean by this? Do you mean “practice empathy” or “show empathy” rather than “accept empathy”?

As shown in the first sample scenario, an editor might surmise the appropriate word choice based on the context, but it is crucial to not assume the correct word and instead query the writer. In this case, specifying the error and suggesting alternatives would be better than requesting the writer to do one’s own proofreading. The second sample sentence demonstrates a similar concept, because the first query—“What do you mean by this?”—may lead the writer to overly explain in the reply due to the confusion about what is being asked, whereas the second query specifically points out a word-choice confusion and thereby elicits a brief, direct response from the writer.

For cases involving short phrases, offering alternative choices can highlight what aspects of the sentence need to be reconsidered. In addition, letting the writer decide on and customize the options allows for maximum autonomy so that the full locus of control rests with the author.

4. Be diplomatic.

Since everyone has different levels of sensitivity, using a tactful communication approach is advisable. Throughout various editorial stages, formulating queries to the writer can be challenging because the written message can be misconstrued without the physical indicators of voice tone and body language, particularly if the writer and the editor are not mutually acquainted outside the editing project. Diplomacy can often make the editorial conversation run smoothly (see Table 4).

Table 4: Practicing diplomacy in author queries
Situation Ineffective query Better query
Sentence: “It was recognized that climate change might disrupt human activities.” The sentence isn’t clear because you didn’t provide the subject of the sentence. Recognized by whom? If you would identify the subject, I can help rephrase this sentence into active voice.
Sentence: “That political party shows it lacks basic sense to even begin comprehending social problems.” This statement is offensive and may turn some readers away. You should definitely tone down the language to make it more neutral. Given the controversy surrounding this topic, some readers might disagree. What do you think about making the language less strong?

As the first sample sentence shows, it is good practice to make “I” statements versus “you” statements. In psychological terms, saying “you did this…” can come across as accusatory and create a negative vibe. As with any diplomatic communication, the editor can turn the focus onto the action or oneself. Rather than point out the negligence of the writer, for example, an editor can propose an alternative and suggest how one can help. In the same vein, it is important to tactfully defuse inflammatory communication used in the second sample sentence without resorting to a reproachful tone, regardless of the ideological position of the editor. Thus, instead of labeling a claim as “offensive” or using another negative term, the editor can hedge the query language by pointing out the controversy and suggesting what can be done to avert a problem.

Although the eventual conveyance of an idea might be similar, tweaking the query language can help the editor to modulate one’s tone and garner more ready acceptance of the feedback from the writer. The simple gesture of using empathetic language can help establish that the editor and writer are on the same team.

Little details contribute significantly to showing care in the editorial process and cultivating the editor–writer relationship. The work can be tricky because the editor’s role is to subject the piece of writing through an arduous trial by questioning and challenging all the premises, but the use of a diplomatic approach can edify the writing overall. In certain situations, the editor can even infuse points of humor along the way and engage in a lighthearted dialogue with the writer so that the rigorous editorial process is made more fun.

Final Words

Editing work is replete with numerous complications and requires concentrated efforts. However, continued practice can help the editor overcome complex scenarios and hone editorial acumen. The guidelines above can begin sensitizing an editor to the various types of edits and author-query responses, but over time, one will likely develop a palette of versatile options that work most effectively to accomplish editorial tasks; this is why editing is an art and calls for discernment rather than a science of methodologies.

The goal of the editor is to build a trusting relationship so that the writer feels comfortable about the editorial process and is confident about the upcoming publication. As the editor often remains an anonymous contributor to the final product, the role of the editor is never ostentatious; rather, the joy is derived from the love of turning words and ideas over in one’s mind and analyzing how all the parts fit together. And ultimately, the editor can be happy of a job well done, not only in serving potential readers but also bringing out the best in the writer so that valuable knowledge may continue to spread.


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