10 ways to word a sensitive query

10 ways to word a sensitive query

October 1, 2019 By Adrienne Montgomerie

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.

  1. What do you think about including [a line about how this person is related]?
  2. Would critics agree that [a 15% change means the level has remained flat]?
  3. Will people trying to carry out this sequence know instinctively to do [the missing steps]?
  4. Does this need to address the common criticism/ contrary view that [dogs are in fact man’s best friend]?
  5. Will readers wonder how this is [physically possible]?
  6. Would rephrasing this slightly help clarify intentions while [being true to the character/ not violating the laws of gravity]?
  7. Would it help readers understand this action if we explain [where the third arm comes from]?
  8. While this activity never fails to capture attention, it seems to demonstrate [something entirely different] rather than [the topic here]. Consider substituting [this other activity].
  9. Can the time periods between ticks on the horizontal axis be made even? The line will tell a very different story when the intervals are not 28, 19, 11, 11, 6, and 10 months.
  10. Does this mean [feathers are a form of fur]? If not, can you explain it another way so I can help clarify?


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.

Header image by Cris Saur on Unsplash

This article was originally posted on the Copyediting website on May 24, 2016.

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