Between Author and Editor Queries: Conversing with the Author in Writing

Those of us who work as author’s editors have to keep in mind that we won’t be there to explain ourselves when authors are reading our queries. That means that we not only need to be clear but also need to get the tone right. Which brings me to the subject of this column: commands.

Have you ever had your own work edited and received queries like the following? Do you ever write queries like these?

Au: Shorten title to no more than 140 characters, including spaces.
Au: Cite reference.
Au: Move this passage to the Results section.
Au: Discussion section is too long. Omit highlighted paragraphs and shorten the summary of your previous work.

I occasionally encounter queries written as commands, and I strongly dislike them.

The Problem With Commands

Why don’t I like commands? The main reason is that they put a lot of distance between the editor and the author. To me, a command sends the message that the editor views himself or herself as an authority figure, not a colleague or team member. Particularly problematic in my view is the command delivered without an explanation, suggesting that the editor presumes that the author will blindly follow whatever the editor instructs. I was one of those children who really hated the “Because I told you so” answer when I asked my parents why I had to do something, and I guess that attitude carries over to my professional life.

to my professional life. Another reason for my dislike of commands is that they can seem especially grating if they turn out to be inappropriate. We’re all human, and we editors can misinterpret facts, misunderstand the motivation behind the choices an author has made, and even make the occasional frank error. (I remember one time when I told an author that all the reference numbers in the text should be changed to superscripts because that was the journal style, only to recognize later that I had been thinking of the wrong journal.) Better in such cases that our suggestion be phrased as gently and politely as possible so that we don’t annoy the author with our tone as well as our mistake.

Does “Please” Solve the Problem?

So how about adding “please” in front of a command. Does it work? From my perspective, sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Raised in the 1970s and 1980s in Texas, I was taught to say “please” when I asked for things, and I feel that “please” does make requests more polite. For a request that the author perform a simple housekeeping task, a command prefaced by “please” seems perfectly fine: “Au: Please supply middle initials for these authors.” But when the command involves a less straightforward or more controversial change, I don’t think “please” is sufficient. I imagine that “Au: Discussion is too long; please omit highlighted paragraphs and shorten description of your previous work” may ruffle feathers almost as much as the one-word-shorter version. Even with “please”, a command can reinforce an editor-as-dictator model.

A Different Approach

So how do I advocate writing queries? For me, the process starts with forming and holding onto a mental picture of the author–editor relationship. When I’m editing a manuscript, I imagine that I’m sitting in a room with the author, engaged in conversation, with the manuscript laid out before us on a table or a computer screen. As we work through the manuscript, I ask questions, describe my reactions as I’m reading, and offer suggestions for improving clarity and flow; the author answers my questions, talks about the points that he or she wants to convey, considers my suggestions and agrees with them or expresses resistance, and offers suggestions of his or her own. We continue talking, exchanging ideas, and modifying the manuscript until we have a final product that the author is satisfied with.

Of course, the actual conversation when I’m editing alone in my office is one-sided, but holding in my mind the image of the author sitting there listening to me forces me to write more conversational and collegial queries. I don’t write commands, because if I were talking with the author, I wouldn’t be using commands. And that brings me to what I think is one test of a good query: Would I be comfortable in saying this to someone in person?

With that approach, here is how the above queries might turn out:

Au: ABC journal limits titles to 100 characters, including spaces, so the current title will need to be shortened. I’ve offered one possibility for a shorter title.
Au: I suggest supplying a reference for this statement.
Au: As this passage describes the results of your studies rather than how the studies were conducted, it should be moved to the Results section. I believe it would fit well between subsections ABC and DEF.
Au: This Discussion seems quite long. The first three paragraphs of the Discussion repeat information presented in the Introduction, so I suggest omitting them. Also, the description of your previous work could probably be shortened. For example, you could briefly summarize your earliest findings (I’ve suggested one way to do this) instead of providing all the details.

I believe that we can earn authors’ respect and lead them to view us as authorities if we offer recommendations rather than commands and explain the rationale for what we suggest. With that type of query, we are sending the message, “You can trust me, because I’m thinking carefully about my work and am following established rules and conventions,” rather than “Trust me, because I’m an editor.”

I can imagine some objections to what I’ve advocated here. One is, Won’t authors think that we’re wimpy or perceive us as inexperienced? I don’t think so. I think that they’ll perceive us as careful and polite. And the idea isn’t to say, “I don’t know, Author, maybe you could do it this way, or maybe you could do it that way—your choice.” We do give the author a clear recommendation. We just take care to phrase it as a recommendation and, for more complicated suggestions, to make clear the thinking behind our advice.

I can also imagine readers asking, Isn’t it possible to be too nice? Yes, I think so. We don’t want politeness to make our queries extremely long; that kind of politeness will just annoy authors. And we shouldn’t sound apologetic about our suggestions. We’re professionals offering professional advice, and there’s no need to apologize for it.

So, if you’re ever tempted to command an author to do something, don’t . . . Oops! Let me try that another way: I recommend phrasing your query as a suggestion or question instead. Wishing you a happy spring and happy editing!