Using queries effectively

Technical editors would do well to follow publishing’s lead

Without writers there would of course be nothing to edit. The writer’s task is not an enviable one: schedules are compressed, engineers (or other SMEs) are often too busy to supply information or adequately review materials, and when the document is flawed, it’s the writer who hears about it.

Adopting a positive attitude, maintaining perspective, and having compassion will help ensure a smoother working relationship. Be a kindred soul, not just a critic.

Work with the writer

Cultivate teamwork throughout the project. Focus attention on audience and goals, not problems or shortcomings. Make it clear that you and the writer share the same ultimate goals. 

How to query

When querying the writer, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • Be positive

Avoid commenting on the original state of the text. State instead what you’ve done. Speak to the shared goal.

  • Be economical

Respect the writer’s time. Be brief and to the point. Focus on the reason for the change.

  • Be specific (when querying)

When asking the writer to supply a change or answer a question, be explicit about what you want. Leave no room for misinterpretation or doubt.

  • Be diplomatic (when making changes)

When you’ve made a change, ask rather than tell. For example: “I’ve moved this sentence because it leads beautifully into this paragraph. OK?” Here you’ve stated the reason for the change, complemented the sentence, and asked the writer’s permission.

  • Tread lightly: criticize the work, not the worker

When you must say something negative, refer to the words, not the writer. (Say “This rambles here a bit and could be better organized . . . “ rather than “You ramble here . . . “) But when delivering praise, praise the writer: “I love the way you did this.”

When to query

When should you query? Start by considering the level of edit. In general, you need not query changes to make the text grammatically or mechanically correct. That is, changes that fall into the realm of proofing or light copyediting. The deeper into the text, the more likely you’ll need to query.

Always query . . .

  • To verify an interpretation of yours

  • When you need clarification or new material

  • To explain substantial deletions, because deletions are not self-explanatory in the way that other changes are

  • When working in the suboptimal range (that is, where text is not incorrect, but ineffective in one way or another), to get approval

Occasionally query . . .

  • To explain routine changes, especially at the start of a new project or when first working with a writer

  • To request approval of changes that you are highly confident of, as a courtesy to the writer and to involve her in the process

Context is all

But when to query has also to do with the context: how much of the text will need deep work, what role the editor plays on this project. Where the editor will take the lead and where the text needs deep work, it may well be more economical to fully mark and query an initial chapter or two, and then to continue by simply making the changes. 

Then, too, where an edit will be heavy throughout, you would typically use an edit memo to capture the overarching approach, as well as any explanations keyed to the text. This approach keeps the text clean and readable, while sacrificing nothing of the explanations for the restructuring of the doc and the reshaping of text.


Developing an editing process
UCSC Extension
First taught October 1996