When you’re worn out, incredulous, and exasperated, it can show in your queries. The samples below give some ideas you can use to word your thousandth query just a little differently, and maybe more softly.
There is more than one reason to write queries this way. Of course, we don’t want to raise the writer’s defenses, causing them to react without considering what wasn’t working. There’s also the chance that we (the editor) got it wrong—that we don’t know some key bit about the subject or genre, or about the audience’s background that makes the original just work. There may be a perfectly good reason that leaves are plaid on that world.
When querying something so ambiguous that you can’t suggest how to clarify it, don’t pose questions that are easy to dismiss. “Will readers understand this?” Could be answered with “Of course they will.” Identify the point of confusion as much as possible. Help the writer understand why you don’t understand, so they can think about their words in a different way, or identify the info they need to add or emphasize.
Keep queries as short as possible. Pontificating or over-explaining can really put a writer on the defensive. If you sense that a longer explanation may be necessary, simply offer that follow-up, or include links to background information. Chances are that the writer just slipped and knows immediately what you’re getting at.
Sometimes, suggesting the change (by tracking it) and querying simply “OK?” is the best action. I can think of one time that I might have accepted the editor’s change except that she wrote “Why use a big word when a short one will do.” Turns out, I had good reasons, but I might not have thought of it if that query hadn’t put me on the defensive.
This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website on May 24, 2016.