The Art of Writing Effective Queries

In the world of manuscript editing, a query is a note from the editor to the author in which the editor alerts the author to a problem, such as a passage that is confusing, or explains the reason for a revision that the editor has made. The purpose of a query is to ask the author to consider fixing the problem or to encourage the author to accept the revision.

Writing a note to an author seems like a simple task, but it is not. Query writing is a nuanced skill that is acquired and honed through practice. Skill in writing queries is important because the author’s response, or lack of response, can affect the quality of a document.

Three important aspects of query writing are when to query, tone, and clarity.

First, when to query. When an editor spots a problem, which can range from a missing comma to poor document structure, the editor has three options: ignore it, fix it if possible, or query it.

Limitations of time and budget can require that low-priority problems be ignored, but the options are usually whether to try to fix a problem or to query it. For me, the decision depends on two things: how confident I am that I can fix the problem without affecting the meaning and my relationship with the author. If I have not worked with the author before, I may revise less and query more until I think that the author has started to trust that I won’t make changes that are unnecessary or that alter the meaning. I may also explain the reasons for the revisions that I have made more than I usually do, with the understanding that queries are time consuming to read and that too many queries can be off-putting.

The second important aspect of query writing is striking the right tone. The tone should demonstrate the editor’s respect for the author’s expertise and the effort that has gone into the writing. Respect can be shown by being tactful. Editing is in essence a criticism of the author’s writing, so tact is vital for establishing or maintaining a good author–editor relationship. A good relationship is critical for producing a document that achieves its purpose, particularly if the editing is at a substantive or higher level.

Another way to strike the right tone is to make the reader the focus of the query; this makes the query less personal (“If the target reader may not know what photo-remediation is, the term could be defined here”). Focusing on the reader is logical in any case if the primary purpose of the document is to convey information to a target audience.

The choice of personal pronouns may also affect the tone. Some editors use “we” in queries, as in “Can we support the statement that the fish species will not be affected by an increase in lake water temperature?” “We” can be interpreted to mean the author and editor’s organization or “we, the author and editor.” I avoid “we” because I think that the author could find the latter interpretation presumptuous inasmuch as the editor is not a co-writer. I also try to avoid “you” because it can sound accusatory, as in “You are discussing two topics in this paragraph; paragraphs should be limited to one.” Third person is probably the safest, except for second-person imperative constructions, such as “Consider moving this sentence to the beginning of the paragraph.”

The third important aspect of writing queries is clarity. The clearer the query, the more likely the author is to understand what the editor is asking or suggesting. “Consider explaining why the trench needs to be 6 feet deep to help justify the cost of the trenching” is clearer than “Consider providing more information about the trench.” Clear queries often contain more information than vague ones. “This sentence was revised to correct a dangling modifier, which was the original first phrase” has more information than “This sentence was revised because it had a grammatical error.” A query that is clear is also concise—it does not contain unnecessary words or irrelevant information. Finally, the author may understand better what the editor thinks is wrong if the editor provides a suggestion for fixing the problem, and a good suggestion has the added benefit of making it easier for the author to take an action.

When the editing is completed, it is a good idea to reread the queries to make sure that they are necessary, have the right tone, and are clear. I rarely skip rereading my queries, because I think the improvements that I make during the rereading are worth the time and effort. When I have finished reviewing a manuscript, I usually understand the content better than when I started reviewing and often can fix some of the problems that I had queried. In addition, I usually find queries that are inconsistent or unclear.

To determine how effective queries are, the editor needs to see how the author responded to them—which ones were ignored, which ones were misinterpreted, and which ones had the intended effect. Skill in query writing can be measured by the percentage of queries that the author responds to in a way that improves the document. The quality of the author– editor relationship is also a reflection of query-writing skill.

In my experience, effective query writing is often underrated and gets less attention than the other aspects of manuscript editing, but it is an essential component.

DIANA BURKE is senior technical editor at URS Corporation, Roanoke, Virginia.